President Obama and the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, setting aside months of friction, committed themselves again Wednesday to their faltering joint effort against Taliban and Al Qaeda extremists.
After a day of talks, Obama said he was satisfied that the leaders “fully appreciate the seriousness of the threats we face and have reaffirmed their commitment to confronting it.”
Obama also moved to quell any doubts about U.S. support for the two beleaguered presidents, Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Hamid Karzai of neighboring Afghanistan, saying Washington’s backing would not waver.
However, the first round of the two-day summit appeared to leave the Obama administration largely where it began: confronting deteriorating situations in two strategically vital countries where it must rely on leaders who have fallen markedly short of U.S. hopes.
Obama did not extract new pledges from Pakistan to deploy more troops against the Islamic militants, White House officials said, describing the private sessions on condition of anonymity.
Nor did he raise the politically sensitive issue of shifting Pakistani troops from the border with India, where most of them are massed, to the western frontier with Afghanistan, as the U.S. would prefer, the officials said.
Nevertheless, the Afghan and Pakistani leaders voiced their commitment to a three-nation effort, even signaling their endorsement of a written plan for carrying it out, the White House officials said, without elaborating.
The summit was convened to refocus an effort that has been thrown off course by the alarming recent gains of Taliban and Al Qaeda militants, who have moved from sanctuaries in Pakistan’s western border regions to more populous areas. The U.S. has been pressuring Pakistan to do more to rein in the militants.
Meanwhile, intensified fighting in Afghanistan has sharpened the differences between the United States and Karzai.
In a reminder of the sobering difficulties, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the two leaders earlier Wednesday that the United States “deeply regrets” civilian deaths caused by military action. She addressed the issue two days after a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan’s Farah province reportedly killed dozens of civilians, including women and children.
Obama, later standing between Karzai and Zardari, said the administration would “make every effort” to avoid civilian deaths, which have fueled anti-American sentiment in both countries.
White House national security advisor James L. Jones Jr., a retired Marine general, said Zardari offered a “pretty powerful expression” of support for combating extremism, but Jones acknowledged the likelihood of difficulties ahead.
“Miracles will not happen,” Jones said. “So this will not happen quickly.”
In a morning meeting at the State Department between Clinton and other senior officials from the three countries, Zardari promised: “We are up to the challenge. . . . My democracy will deliver.”
Zardari, who has been pressing for quicker military and economic aid, also said his government “needs attention and needs nurturing” from the United States.
Pakistani officials have criticized Congress’ plans to make military assistance contingent on Pakistan devoting the resources to fighting militants.
Zardari also brought up the slaying of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was killed by terrorists in December 2007.
“Democracy will avenge the death of my wife and the thousands of Pakistani citizens around the world,” he said.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Valley Village), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview that in his conversation with Zardari on Tuesday afternoon, the Pakistani leader was “articulate and passionate” but left him with questions.
“What I didn’t hear was any coherent strategic plan for defeating the insurgency,” Berman said.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have a long history of disputes, but Karzai described the neighbors as “conjoined twins.”
U.S. officials have openly expressed unhappiness with both governments. But they also say they are prepared to deal with them, and have pointed to few alternatives.
This week’s talks have brought together Pakistani and Afghan officials with a high-level cast of Obama administration players, including Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.; CIA Director Leon E. Panetta; FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III; Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan; and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Mideast and Central Asia.
Clinton spoke warmly of Zardari. She made an early-morning visit, accompanied by Holbrooke, to the hotel where Zardari and his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, were staying.
She said she had been a “great admirer and a friend” of Bhutto, Bilawal’s slain mother.
However, Clinton also pointedly called for protection of the rights of women and girls, especially where strict Islamic customs and laws are imposed.
“The rights of women must be respected and protected,” she said. “This is a time for, as we say, all hands on deck. The entire population, the talents of everyone, must be engaged.”
Though the meetings focused on stepping up the fight along the border, officials also emphasized the need for economic development, trade and agricultural cooperation. The United States is hoping to develop special economic zones to spur growth, and to substitute legal crops for Afghanistan’s opium poppies.
Clinton said Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to negotiate an accord that would foster increased trade and transportation between them. Their border area has been the subject of a variety of disputes, and such an agreement has been under discussion for more than 40 years.
Clinton promised that the three countries would have “work plans” coming out of the meetings, but she declined to describe the areas of agreement before talks end today. Zardari and Karzai left the grand foyer of the White House, walking behind Obama, with their arms around each other.
The two foreign leaders made brief statements in their morning appearance with Clinton. But in a break from usual practice, they did not make statements or take reporters’ questions during their appearance with Obama.