Obama needs new plan on Pakistan, Afghanistan
President Obama begins two days of talks at the White House today with the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan to overhaul a painstakingly developed security strategy that was unveiled only five weeks ago but already has become badly outdated.
The three countries spent months developing their plan to combat an Islamic insurgency centered in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. But growing militant activity in Pakistan is forcing them to hastily switch focus.
In what is emerging as Obama’s first major foreign policy crisis, U.S. officials fear the militants could fracture Pakistan, the far more populous nation, further destabilizing the region and even posing a grave risk to the security of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal.
Obama will press Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to intensify his country’s efforts to fight the insurgency, step up economic development efforts and reach out to political rivals to broaden his fragile government’s base of support.
“We need to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies,” Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said in testimony before a House committee Tuesday.
Yet U.S. officials acknowledge that their influence over Pakistan is limited, consisting mostly of the money and arms they can supply.
Though the situation in Afghanistan may not have improved, it does suddenly seem more manageable. “By comparison, it looks like Canada,” one U.S. official said in an interview.
The talks convene as fighting rages in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, about 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital. Pakistani officials had hoped to strike a lasting cease-fire there by agreeing to the Taliban’s imposition of Islamic law in the region. But the militants have since attempted to advance even closer to the capital, igniting the military confrontation.
Obama announced his new Afghanistan-Pakistan security plan in March, pledging extra combat troops and training units for Afghanistan and civilian and military aid for Pakistan. The Taliban’s gains and subsequent fighting in Pakistan overtook that strategy.
Obama today will meet separately with Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and then will meet with them together.
The talks will also bring together military, intelligence and political officials in working groups in an effort to better coordinate their activities. But the Pakistani official with the most control over the country’s military, army Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, won’t be present.
Administration officials are also seeking regional support for the new efforts. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, visiting Riyadh, the Saudi capital, appealed for that government’s help in backing Pakistani efforts to repel the militants.
Both Karzai and Zardari met with top lawmakers and policy analysts in Washington on Tuesday, telling them they were combating the insurgents and were capable of leading their countries.
The talks involving Obama, Karzai and Zardari are complicated by Pakistan’s growing opposition to U.S. airstrikes by unmanned aircraft there and by Afghanistan’s rising frustration over its civilian casualties in U.S. and NATO military missions.
In one acknowledgment of the anti-American sentiments, U.S. and Pakistani leaders will lay out their plans to train Pakistani troops elsewhere in the region, out of sight of the Pakistani public.
The talks come at a time of unusual friction in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last month that the Zardari government had “basically abdicated” to militants in the Swat Valley. She and other U.S. officials have also spoken openly about their concerns about the security of Pakistan’s estimated 60 to 100 nuclear weapons, a subject previous U.S. administrations avoided in public.
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, said the two countries were in agreement on the way forward, and he predicted that in the meetings “past recriminations about who is to blame will be replaced by plans for who will do what.”
Pakistani officials have complained that despite U.S. commitments, little new economic and military aid has been sent in recent months. The Defense Department has proposed $400 million in military aid, and the State Department is pushing for $497 million for economic, law enforcement and humanitarian assistance. In addition, Obama’s regional strategy proposed $1.5 billion a year for five years as part of a bill that also sets conditions for the aid.
Pakistan dislikes the conditions, which could gauge how it deploys troops or progresses in combating militants. Islamabad says the strings represent meddling and pose both political and operational problems.
Similarly, Pakistanis have objected to U.S. overtures to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a move the administration has said is no different than contacts with opposition leaders in other countries. Pakistanis fear it is meant to undermine Zardari’s government.
The security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is of particular concern to Obama, officials in Washington said.
“The security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, and the security of nuclear weapons throughout the world, is something that the president thinks is of the highest priority,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Zardari said in a CNN interview that the nuclear weapons were “definitely safe” and that there was no risk of the militants taking control of them.
“It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “We have a 700,000-[man] army.”
Analysts say Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is dispersed widely throughout the country, including at several top-secret facilities near the capital.
“Right now the security is pretty good -- and it’s as good or bad as the Pakistani army,” said Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “If down the road you see the Pakistani government become more shaky . . . that could be impaired.”
To help counter militants closer to the border with Afghanistan, U.S. officials would like Pakistan to draw from the force it has massed along its border with rival India. However, administration officials said Obama would not lobby Zardari directly on shifting forces or on other specific steps.
The talks with Karzai could likewise be strained. U.S. officials have criticized his leadership and what some say is his tolerance of corruption.
Karzai’s relationship with the Obama administration has been notably cooler than the cordial bond he enjoyed with President Bush. Heading into his reelection campaign, he has sought to distance himself from elements of the Western-led military effort.
Karzai has criticized Western forces over civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and he has also been critical of the effectiveness of developmental aid, saying Afghans had hoped to be much better off by now, nearly eight years after the fall of the Taliban regime.
In an address Tuesday to the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, Karzai urged policymakers to be careful in the use of military force.
“In the longer term, the war on terrorism will succeed only if it is also addressed in a political manner,” he said. “It’s not a military question at all. It’s more a political question now.”
Times staff writer Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.