Sunday, May 03, 2009

U.S. Aims to Unify Efforts on Afghan Border by Jay Solomon and Peter Spiegel

President Barack Obama will seek a unified strategy to subdue Islamist militants in the tribal regions straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan when he meets with the presidents of the two nations in Washington this week.

The meetings with Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan come as the Obama administration grapples with how closely to embrace two, who are key allies but flawed leaders.

Many U.S. officials question Mr. Zardari's grip on power and whether his government is willing and able to fight Taliban militants who have gained control of more Pakistani territory in recent months. Some in Washington say opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, would make a better partner, despite concerns about his Islamist alliances.

In Afghanistan, some U.S. officials criticized Mr. Karzai recently, saying he has undermined U.S. goals in the region through ineffective leadership and tolerance of corruption.

But many expect Mr. Karzai to win re-election in August, and some officials in the State Department and the Pentagon now say these public rebukes could undermine future U.S.-Afghan cooperation.

"We've not completely burnt that bridge, but it's black, and timbers are out," said a former senior U.S. military official who consults with the administration on Afghan strategy.

U.S. officials said Mr. Karzai has publicly moved closer to Iran and Russia in recent months, in what appeared to be a warning to the U.S. that he has other strategic partners.

The heads of the three countries' militaries, intelligence services and foreign ministries are slated to attend the meetings in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday, officials involved in the summit said. Mr. Obama is scheduled to hold bilateral and trilateral meetings with Messrs. Karzai and Zardari on Wednesday.

The U.S. wants to help Pakistan and Afghanistan unify their fight against the Taliban through better intelligence sharing, military cooperation and economic integration to aid the tribal areas.

Mr. Karzai and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf regularly accused each other of not doing enough to fight the Taliban, but Pakistan and Afghanistan officials say relations have improved since Mr. Zardari took office.

Afghan and Pakistani diplomats said they would like to use the summit to put in place a larger number of joint border-control centers to guard against Taliban militants orchestrating cross-border raids.

Kabul and Islamabad are looking to firm up trade and transportation pacts aimed at stimulating economic growth in the impoverished tribal regions straddling both countries. The World Bank and its finance arm, the International Finance Corp., are expected to announce development projects for these areas during the meetings this week, while the State Department is preparing to fund agriculture programs aimed at providing Afghan farmers with alternatives to poppy cultivation.

Obama administration officials, increasingly concerned about Pakistan's stability, would also like to discuss acceleration of financial assistance to Islamabad's security forces. Last week, U.S. officials asked Congress to speed up approval of an $83.4 billion war-spending request that includes $400 million to help Pakistani forces fight the Taliban and other armed groups.

Washington has pledged $1 billion in aid to Islamabad as part of a five-year, $7.5 billion package that required Congressional approval. But Congress remains skittish about distributing aid to Pakistan due to past allegations by U.S. lawmakers of government corruption there.

Many U.S. and European officials question whether the international community can effectively distribute assistance into tribal areas where development agencies have difficulty operating.

"No one really knows what to do with this money," said a senior European official. "How do you really use it to improve the situation in the tribal areas?"

Summit attendants are also expected to reassess Pakistan's security situation. In recent days, some senior U.S. officials have publicly questioned whether Mr. Zardari's government could fall, after Taliban fighters seized areas just 70 miles from Islamabad. But a number of senior Pentagon officials are seeking to strike a less-alarmist tone in the discussions. "The threat can get lucky from time to time, and it looks like it has more prowess than it does," said a Pentagon official involved in formulating Pakistan policy.

Senior Obama administration officials said the crisis in Pakistan is among the most acute national security challenges Washington faces.

A peace deal between Islamabad and the Taliban in the Swat Valley has been strained by a militant effort to gain control of neighboring districts. Setting the stage for resumed fighting in Swat, the army Sunday accused militants in the valley of looting, attacking infrastructure and killing a soldier; the Taliban said it had started patrolling the valley's main town in response to moves by security forces there, the Associated Press reported.

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