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Obama holds talks with Zardari, Karzai
US Admn expects the meetings to ‘produce some useful agreements of cooperation’
Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington

US President Barack Obama met Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House on Wednesday and urged them to jointly tackle the threat posed by the Taliban in their countries. Neither Zardari nor Karzai are seen likely to be able to deliver on American requests, but the Obama administration is aware of its limited options in the region.

Obama and Vice-President Joseph Biden held separate bilateral meetings with Karzai and Zardari in the Oval Office on Wednesday afternoon. Later, a trilateral meeting was planned with both visiting leaders in the White House Cabinet Room. The crucial two-day meetings were kicked off early on Wednesday when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama’s special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard C Holbrooke, met Zardari and Karzai.

At a congressional briefing on Tuesday, Holbrooke described the planned meetings as “unprecedented trilateral diplomacy.” He said the Obama administration hoped the meetings would “produce some useful agreements of cooperation”. The US wants assurances from Pakistan and Afghanistan that they would cooperate in the fight against the Taliban even as the Obama administration plans to send additional troops into Afghanistan. US officials are also concerned about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and are determined to persuade the Pakistani leadership that it is the Taliban, and not India, that poses an existential threat to their country. US officials are also expected to tell Pakistan to end continuing links between its military intelligence agency and the Taliban. The Inter-Services Intelligence Chief Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha is part of Zardari’s delegation.

Asked about the ISI’s “double game strategy” by New York Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman, Holbrooke said he was well aware of the allegations and has had lengthy talks with General Pasha, who insists the “ISI does not do these things anymore”. He added: “But he does not deny nor does anyone else that in the old days, ISI and the American intelligence services worked together to set up some of the organisations which have now turned against the United States. And there may be some serious legacy issues.” The meetings come in the backdrop of growing concern about Pakistan’s ability to stand up to the Taliban, which recently moved within 100 km from Islamabad. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman told Holbrooke lawmakers were “deeply concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan” and that Pakistan appeared to be at a “tipping point”. Ackerman put it more bluntly. “Pakistan's pants are on fire. ... Pakistan’s leaders, rather than recognising and moving to address the urgent danger to their constitution and country, instead seem convinced that if left alone or attack piecemeal, the Islamist flame will simply burn itself out. That hope is, at best, folly,” he said.

Holbrooke assured lawmakers: “We do not think Pakistan is a failed state. We think it’s a state under extreme test from the enemies who are also our enemies and we have... the same common enemy, the United States and Pakistan.”

Ackerman said neither Zardari nor his arch-rival Nawaz Sharif “appear to recognise the scope and seriousness of the crisis that their country is in or of the necessity of setting their personal or party political fortunes aside in order to meet the danger”. He questioned Sharif’s commitment to fight the Taliban, saying: “And while Sharif’s long-standing ties to Islamist political parties could enable him to persuade Pakistani public of the need to confront the Taliban, his public downplaying of the Taliban threat raises serious questions about his commitment to fight the insurgents.” Asked by Florida Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen if Pakistan was hesitant to deal with the militants “because they think that they can’t do it, or because of the problems that they have with India,” Holbrooke replied: “We have long felt that our friends in Pakistan could put more resources into the struggle in the west. They have been reluctant to do so because of their longstanding concerns and past history with India.... India is always a factor.” Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute said there was no great likelihood that Pakistan’s attention would shift from the East to the West anytime in the near future. “Indian threats following the Mumbai attack ensured that what had appeared to be some positive movement toward reconciliation would be squashed,” he said.

But Holbrooke noted that ever since he came to the job India has been in election campaign. “They have been listening, they’ve been very interested but they have not taken any clear positions at this point... They really do share the understanding that what’s happening in western Pakistan is of direct concern to them. The Indians have been public in saying they’re not happy with the cooperation they got after the Mumbai attacks. We all know that,” he said.

Discussing concerns about a military coup in Islamabad, Holbrooke said the Obama administration is “strongly opposed to any such event” and had made this “unambiguous and clear to all parties publicly and privately”. He said US chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen is in constant contact with his Pakistani counterparts on this issue and a coup would be “a terrible event”.

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