Obama Set for 'Intense' Pakistan, Afghan Summit
WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama meets Wednesday with the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, hoping to shore up the fight against Islamic extremism as concerns about the region mount.
The summit visibly showcases the new strategy of Obama, who says the United States must consider the neighboring countries together -- rather than focus just on fighting Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan.
The meeting comes as challenges deepen for both Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, whose popularity and authority have been crumbling, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is up against a growing Taliban-led insurgency.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the administration would have "some very intense sessions" with the Afghan and Pakistani delegations on the new US strategy in the region.
The three-way format is "quite helpful at beginning to change mindsets and, frankly, set forth some requirements about what we expect from these governments," Clinton said.
Obama, who has made Afghanistan and Pakistan a key priority for his presidency, openly worried about Zardari's government during a news conference marking his first 100 days in office.
Obama said he was "gravely concerned" about the fragility of Pakistan's eight-month-old civilian government, saying it was unable to provide basic services that would ensure the population's loyalty.
Amid fears for Zardari, some US policymakers have been looking to Pakistan's powerful military and to Zardari's rival Nawaz Sharif, a former premier with ties to Islamist groups, to ensure future strategy.
Obama gave a nod in his news conference to Pakistan's military, praising it for beginning to see Islamic militants -- not historic rival India -- as the country's main threat.
Pakistan's military recently launched an offensive against militants in the Buner region after coming under heavy US criticism for reaching truces that brought Islamic shariah law close to the capital Islamabad.
"The United States has a very dim view of what either the Pakistani or Karzai governments can achieve. Both of them are weak governments, albeit in different ways," said Kamran Bokhari, a senior analyst at the private intelligence firm Stratfor.
"The understanding is that if you have a trilateral summit or arrangement in which both sides are kept in the loop on what is going on, then the chances of making progress are far higher," Bokhari said.
Kabul has little authority in much of Afghanistan and Karzai's government has blamed Pakistan -- the chief backer of the Taliban until 2001 -- for the continued strength of extremists in border areas.
In turn, many Pakistanis charge that their country would not be suffering its current chaos if the United States had not intervened in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Pakistan has been especially resentful of US drone attacks on its soil which are believed to have killed senior militants but also civilians. US commanders have made clear they do not trust Pakistan to conduct the operations.
Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to the region, has urged elements in Pakistan's military and intelligence to cut off lingering links with militants -- comments that irked some Pakistanis.
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council think-tank, expected the mood to be better this time, with the US Congress trying to speed up approval of a 1.4 billion-dollar package for Pakistan.
A donors conference last month in Japan pledged five billion dollars for Pakistan, which has needed an International Monetary Fund lifeline to prevent financial collapse.
"It always helps to come back from Washington with good news, particularly on the economic front and particularly if it also helps in the battle against the militants," Nawaz said.
"But in the end, it's going to be the results of the actions taken inside Pakistan and not the talks that occur in Washington that matter," Nawaz added.