- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

President Obama on Wednesday pledged unwavering support for Pakistan in its deepening war with Taliban militants and called on the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan to embrace “a renewed sense of partnership” against a common enemy.

“I’m pleased that these two men, elected leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat that we face and have reaffirmed their commitment to confronting it,” Mr. Obama said to reporters at the White House. He was flanked by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

“Along the border, where insurgents often move freely, we must work together with a renewed sense of partnership to share intelligence and to coordinate our efforts to isolate, target and take out our common enemy,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama, whose administration has pressed Pakistan to take the Taliban threat more seriously, stressed that the U.S. is not just making demands but also investing U.S. wealth to strengthen and rebuild civil society in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“I want the Pakistani people to understand that America is not simply against terrorism; we are on the side of their hopes and their aspirations,” he said.

Just a week after having labeled the Pakistani government “fragile,” Mr. Obama affirmed his commitment to the Zardari administration. “That commitment will not waver, and that support will be sustained,” he said.

Mr. Obama opened a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Karzai by expressing sympathy for civilian deaths reported in western Afghanistan as the result of a U.S. air strike Sunday.

“We regret the loss of life, particularly of innocent people, and … the investigations under way will be pursued aggressively,” said National Security Adviser James L. Jones. “It was clear that President Karzai was moved by that statement and he thanked the president for starting off the meeting with that expression of condolence.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, meanwhile, arrived in Afghanistan on a surprise visit to oversee the first U.S. deployments of a 21,000-troop buildup.

In Washington, Mr. Karzai and Mr. Zardari took part in a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and numerous Cabinet officials in the morning, and then had separate meetings at the White House with Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The two foreign leaders, Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden met as a group before the president made his public remarks.

The White House said the meetings were intended to foster greater cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan on fighting Taliban and al Qaeda militants along their border and in intelligence sharing, and to engage the U.S. government at all levels in a broader effort to strengthen or rebuild civil society in the two countries.

But the mounting combat between Mr. Zardari’s government and the Taliban overshadowed many of the other issues. The militants advanced in recent weeks to within 60 miles of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, raising questions about the country’s understanding of its problem with Islamic extremism and its commitment to fighting it.

Mr. Zardari on Tuesday expressed disbelief that his government’s stability is threatened by the Taliban. “We have a 700,000[-member] army. How could they take over?” he said during an interview on CNN.

Pakistan’s military on Wednesday battled Taliban forces in the Swat Valley and in the Buner region, which lies just 60 miles west of Islamabad. But the bulk of its forces are deployed to resist any attack from the country’s longtime enemy, India.

Mrs. Clinton, speaking to reporters at the White House after her meetings with the two leaders, applauded the Pakistani offensive.

“I’m actually quite impressed by the actions that the Pakistani government is now taking. Action was called for and action has now been forthcoming,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mr. Zardari had been criticized in the days leading up to his visit to Washington for not acting more quickly and decisively against Taliban fighters after it was clear that a peace agreement ceding effective control of the Swat Valley to the militants had collapsed.

These critics argued that Mr. Zardari and members of his government had focused the nation’s security efforts too much on longtime rival India, rather than the Taliban. Mr. Obama drove that point home Wednesday, saying the militants are “the single greatest threat to the Pakistani state.”

Mrs. Clinton, however, said she thought Pakistan’s government had undergone a significant change in its thinking.

“The leadership of Pakistan, both civilian and military, you know, really had to work on significant paradigm shifts in order to be able to see this threat as those of us on the outside perceived it. And I think that has occurred. And I think that there is a resolve going forward,” she said.

But U.S, officials could not say whether Pakistan would shift military units away from its eastern border with India to fight the Taliban. Mr. Jones said the discussions with Mr. Obama did not “get down to that level of specificity.”

Mr. Zardari conceded during his meeting with Mrs. Clinton that Pakistan “needs attention and needs nurturing,” but in his CNN interview the day before he called on the U.S. to give his government more military aid with fewer strings attached, including remote-controlled drone aircraft capable of delivering targeted missile strikes.

A senior official with broad knowledge of U.S. military affairs said this week that the administration will “watch intently in the weeks ahead and months ahead for further reflections of the focus on that particular threat to the very existence of the country.”

Mrs. Clinton also reinforced messages of strong support for Mr. Zardari, saying the U.S. should be “a little more understanding on our part about what he confronted.”

“He inherited a very difficult and unmanageable situation,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mr. Zardari appealed for patience.

“Just as the United States is making progress after seven years of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, we too will make progress over time. Democracy in Pakistan is only 7 months old,” he said.

Both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton addressed the issue of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, where authorities say the number of deaths is near 100. The U.S. military on Wednesday disputed that number and said the matter was under investigation.

“We hope we can work together towards reducing and eventually completely removing the possibilities of civilian casualties as we move ahead … in our war against terrorism, or in our struggle against terrorism,” Mr. Karzai said.

Talks between the Obama administration and the Pakistani and Afghan governments will continue Thursday as Cabinet members meet with their counterparts to discuss cooperation on issues such as intelligence, control of the Afghan-Pakistan border, trade between the two countries and rebuilding Afghanistan’s agriculture sector, which now relies largely on poppy crops that produce opium sold by the Taliban to finance its operations.

The White House sees this emphasis as vital to successful counterinsurgency efforts in both countries, as well as a way to encourage participation and cooperation on all issues.

But Juan Zarate, who was a national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said that helping build civil society in Pakistan will be challenging until the Zardari government allows more of a U.S. government presence “to ensure that the dollars are being spent effectively.”

“It’s very difficult when you’re not physically present to engage in effective aid programs or economic development programs,” Mr. Zarate said.

• Jon Ward can be reached at jward@washingtontimes.com.

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