Bush to meet with Pakistani, Afghan leaders

Survival of Kabul government is priority

September 22, 2006|By Mark Silva | Mark Silva,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- The survival of Afghanistan's fragile government in the face of a resurgent Taliban threat will be high on the agenda for President Bush and the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan in a series of White House meetings starting today.

While the White House credits Pakistan for helping to capture or kill more al-Qaida operatives than any other country since the attacks of Sept. 11, it worries about support that Pakistan's unruly regions provide for Taliban fighters intent on unseating the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The White House is counting on Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to prevail upon tribal leaders to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Afghanistan.

The White House sessions, starting with a meeting between Bush and Musharraf today, could serve to underscore what one analyst calls a "sweet and sour" relationship between their two countries, once at odds over Pakistani nuclear ambitions but now allies in a war against terrorism. After Bush plays host to Karzai on Tuesday, the administration plans a meeting of all three leaders Wednesday.

"Afghanistan is the issue that is of the greatest danger for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship," says Teresita Schaffer, director for South Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Because we have been working at cross-purposes. Afghanistan is the one place where you could have Pakistani-supported forces coming into conflict with U.S. soldiers."

Although Musharraf has called the Taliban a greater threat to security than al-Qaida because of the popular support it enjoys, the Pakistani leader - whose government once supported the Taliban - has made accommodations with its operatives based along the border within his country.

The White House is counting on Musharraf to work with tribal leaders to prevent foreign fighters from crossing the border, to make those tribal leaders "part of the solution rather than part of the problem" and get them "to put pressure on people to lay down arms and behave," spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday. "That's going to be something which is going to be under discussion" today.

Analysts say it is imperative that this message is underscored in the meetings among Bush, Musharraf and Karzai.

"If they do things right, they will use the Bush-Musharraf meeting to set up the trilateral [meeting] to make it real clear that the U.S. is very concerned about what Pakistan is doing in Afghanistan," said Schaffer, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asia who served in several U.S. embassies there.

Noting the troubling "relationship between the Pakistani government and the extremist organizations," Schaffer said, "I am quite convinced that the policy of the Pakistani government is to manage these organizations, rather than put them out of business. And I am not sure that that's a balancing act that's sustainable."

U.S. and NATO forces are attempting to protect the Afghan government against a violent uprising of the Taliban, who were toppled in a U.S.-led invasion in 2002 but whose key ally, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, was not captured.

Since then, bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders are believed to have secured refuge in Pakistan.

While Musharraf has been praised for democratic reforms since taking control of Pakistan in a military coup in 1999, including election of a parliament that has confirmed his presidency and promises new elections next year, he has also been faulted for not securing a vast and violent border region whose rebels threaten not only him, but also his neighbor.

"The unfortunate history of our region has placed Pakistan in the front line of the global campaign against terrorism," Musharraf said in an address to the United Nations this week.

"Afghanistan confronts complex security, political and economic challenges, including a resurgent Taliban, who also threaten Pakistan's efforts against extremism and terrorism," Musharraf told the U.N. "Problems along the bordering regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan are compounded by the continuing presence in Pakistan of over 3 million Afghan refugees, some of them sympathetic to the Taliban."

Bush credited Pakistan with capturing or killing "hundreds of al-Qaida terrorists" when he met with Musharraf this year in Islamabad, and the two leaders spent "a good while" talking about "the work that needs to be done."

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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