President Obama’s assessment of the government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari provides an unusually harsh backdrop for a summit between the two leaders at the White House Wednesday.
Mr. Obama told reporters he was “gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan, not because I think that they’re immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan; more concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile and don’t seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services schools, health care, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of people. And so as a consequence it is very difficult for them to gain the support and the loyalty of their people.”
Mr. Obama’s special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, promptly swung into damage-control mode after the president gave his assessment at a prime time news conference less than a week ago.
On Capitol Hill Tuesday, Mr. Holbrooke said that there has been “misunderstanding” in Pakistan about the “motivation” of Mr. Obama’s remarks, and that Mr. Zardari raised the issue “immediately” after he arrived in Washington on Monday.
“We should not allow comments about how serious the issue is to be confused with predictions,” said Mr. Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“We don’t think Pakistan is a failed state,” Mr. Holbrooke told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, calling the description “an easy and attractive journalistic cliche.”
He was responding to questions about by both Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who earlier accused Pakistan of “abdicating” to militants.
Mrs. Clinton also raised concerns over the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as Taliban fighters continue to battle the Pakistani army in rugged mountains of the North West Frontier Province.
Pakistan says its weapons are safe from terrorists.
Officials in Washington are mindful of their limited options in Pakistan.
“It is not a question of whether [Zardari] is politically strong enough or not. We have no choice,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
“Pakistan needs to be a partner. There isn’t an alternative solution,” he added.
Mr. Riedel led a commission that drafted policy guidelines for the Obama administration in dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute, said the White House meetings on Wednesday and Thursday will focus on encouraging Pakistan and Afghanistan to shed their mutual suspicions and cooperate.
“There will be an attempt to impress on them the connections between the insurgencies,” Mr. Weinbaum said.
The U.S. is also urging Mr. Zardari to reach an accommodation with his arch rival, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Mr. Holbrooke sought to address speculation in the Pakistani press that the Obama administration was choosing sides.
“We have not distanced ourselves from President Zardari,” Mr. Holbrooke told Congress.
He urged members of Congress to treat Mr. Zardari “as the leader of a country that needs our help.”
Mr. Zardari has often been accused in his country of being pro-American, putting him in a precarious position given the deep distrust of U.S. intentions throughout Pakistan and much of the Muslim world.
“Some Americans don’t appreciate” the difficulties Mr. Zardari has to deal with, Mr. Holbrooke said.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood played down contacts with Mr. Sharif.
“We talk to opposition leaders in many countries,” he told reporters Monday. “We talk to them because we think its important that there be political unity in the country to deal with this type of a threat that Pakistan faces … well continue to do that.”
On Monday, Sens. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, introduced legislation in the Senate to triple nonmilitary aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion annually for the next five years.
The bill conditions military assistance on annual certification that Pakistan’s army and spy services are “genuine partners,” Mr. Kerry said.
Mr. Obama will also meet separately with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and then the three leaders will meet together.