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Af-Pak Troubles Coming to a Head

by Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON - Despite an overhaul of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, it appears that the U.S. strategy there is running into obstacles as varied as the U.S. Congress and the leaders of those countries, who are both visiting Washington this week.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) walks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (L) and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zadari before the US-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral consultations at the State Department in Washington May 6, 2009. (REUTERS/Yuri Gripas) Before their arrival, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan were harshly criticised as incapable of acting as counterparts to boosted U.S. efforts to put down insurgencies in their countries, with their strategic priorities of fighting extremism and sound long-term development.

The result has been hesitation by both President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress to throw full-fledged support behind the two, even as U.S. administration officials have publicly expressed confidence in them.

But both leaders received a strong welcome in a meeting with Obama Wednesday, where they met separately with the president for 20 minutes at a time, then together.

"I'm pleased that these two men, elected leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, fully appreciate the seriousness of the threats that we face and have reaffirmed their commitment to confronting it," Obama said at a brief press conference after the meetings.

He said they were united in "a common goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their ability to operate in either country in the future."

In his brief comments, Obama didn't mention the Taliban, but instead made references such as "al Qaeda and its allies." Responding to the absence of the name of the ethnic Pashtun group at the heart of the insurgencies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, National Security Council chief Gen. Jim Jones said that the administration was "focused on all extremism", but "especially" those looking to attack outside their nations' borders.

Part of Obama's strategy, as announced about a month ago, is to "peel away" reconcilable parts of the Taliban following the example of the "surge" strategy in Iraq, where insurgents were paid to abandon their anti-government fight.

Obama also spoke of providing a "spark" for development on the Pakistani side of the lawless border regions where the insurgency operates freely, and of helping development by providing alternatives to the poppy cultivation that feeds the drug trade and, through protection rackets, provides funding for the Taliban.

But efforts at aid, especially to Pakistan, are being held up in Congress as legislators seek to put conditions on the money as well as assurances about its use.

Well-respected Pakistani journalist and analyst Ahmed Rashid wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post Tuesday where he suggested that the aid be quickly pushed through Congress, with at least the first year being unconditional.

"I do not want to see my country go down because Congress is more concerned with minutiae than with the big picture," he wrote. "Yes, there must be a sea change in attitudes and policies in the army, intelligence services and civilian government. But tomorrow may be too late. Pakistan needs help today."

Both the foreign presidents also met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday, and deputies from all three countries are expected to have intensive meetings with their counterparts through Thursday.

After her meeting with Zardari and Karzai, Clinton said, "I am very optimistic that this process is making a difference."

But despite all the strongly supportive rhetoric, it's not clear that both men have the confidence of the Obama administration.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Obama intends to "maintain an arm's length relationship" with Karzai because of his inability to extend his power far beyond the capital, Kabul, some seven years after he was installed by the U.S. as president (subsequently winning elections in 2004).

Afghanistan has also recently been labeled one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and Karzai is sometimes seen as a problem in this regard. His powerful brother is alleged to be involved in serious corruption and Karzai has been friendly to warlords - he just chose an especially notorious one, Mohamed Fahim, as a vice presidential running-mate - who extort local populations, turning those locals against the government and pushing them into the hands of the insurgency.

But Karzai doesn't look like he's going anywhere. With no serious competition, he is widely expected to win the elections in August.

Zardari, on the other hand, has garnered more public shows of support for his young civilian government, but his political future is more unstable than Karzai's. He has already faced a serious political crisis from his main opponent, Nawaz Sharif of the powerful family from the Punjab region. The U.S. has also been speaking to Sharif, which it insists is only in his role as opposition leader.

And, though some deny an "existential threat" to Pakistan, as U.S. officials put in this week, Zardari is facing a brazen insurgency centred on the Taliban.

The main question floating in Washington is Zardari's ability to rein in the Taliban insurgency, raising concerns of U.S. officials. His government signed a peace deal with Islamists in the Swat Valley which Secretary Clinton said was the Pakistani government "basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists."

When Taliban forces then moved into neighbouring Buner province, less than 100 kms from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, it raised alarm bells both in the U.S. and, reportedly, in Pakistan.

But it's not clear that the Pakistani army, headed by General Parvez Kayani, is ready to make full-fledged war on the militants. After eight years of recent military rule in which Pakistan, under the military dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, allowed the Taliban to operate freely, Kayani appears hesitant to put the military stamp on any actions that could be perceived as taken against his own countrymen and is reportedly seeking political cover from the civilian government.

Notably, Kayani has not joined Zardari in Washington this week. The special U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, dubbed Af-Pak, Richard Holbrooke, told the House Foreign Relations committee that Kayani was at home in Pakistan "where he should be."

Nonetheless, the wake-up call from Buner appears to have lit a fire under Zardari and Kayani, and a military assault on Swat is expected. The army has not confirmed the attack, which press reports have called "imminent", but the military press office in Islamabad said that the Taliban was guilty of "gross violations" of the heavily criticised peace deal.

On the advice of Pakistani officials, as many as half a million residents of Swat have fled the region, known for its natural beauty, and are taking shelter in refugee camps. In their absence, the Taliban is reportedly occupying homes, patrolling streets, and laying landmines.

But Laura Rozen reported on her Foreign Policy blog that, in a background briefing for reporters ahead of the tripartite summit, unnamed U.S. officials "refused to comment...on whether they had seen signs that Pakistan was shifting its security posture by, for instance, redeploying troops from its border with India towards its border with Afghanistan to devote to the fight against militants."

The army is known to view the decades-long conflict with India as the primary security concern for Pakistan, even as the militant insurgency has grown over several years.

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