WASHINGTON – The fuse that could ignite an explosion of Islamic militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is burning so fast that the Obama administration is scrambling to keep pace.
As Pakistan’s army finally opened a belated offensive against the advance of extremist Taliban fighters, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and his key security ministers huddled Wednesday with their Afghan and U.S. counterparts in all-day meetings in Washington.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai started the day on a solemn note, acknowledging Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s expressions of regret for the deaths of dozens of Afghan civilians killed during Monday’s battle between U.S. forces and the Taliban.
President Barack Obama demanded the meetings as part of his complex, costly and far-reaching strategy for Afghanistan that now links success there with stability in neighboring Pakistan.
It’s a huge undertaking in distant lands where fiercely independent people have a long history of outlasting foreign militaries and refusing to change their ways. The Washington sessions represent an early test of whether a U.S. president at the start of the 21st century has sufficient leverage and power to succeed where great empires have failed.
But the first of the two days of meetings, evinced — on the surface at least — none of the drama or urgency gripping both countries, especially the potential threat to Pakistan’s weak government and fears its nuclear weapons could fall into militant hands.
Administration officials brought the promised carrots to the difficult task, assurances of significant additional aid for Pakistan and 21,000 additional U.S. troops for Afghanistan.
In return, the White House demanded that Karzai get serious about eradicating corruption and boosting a government criticized as ineffective. Zardari was questioned about his seemingly lackadaisical response to the Taliban sweep through the Swat Valley within 60 miles of Islamabad, the capital.
National Security Adviser James Jones said Zardari had “assured the president he was properly focused on it (the Taliban threat),” noting that was “very encouraging.”
Most foreign policy analysts applaud Obama’s new strategy — an acceptance that defeating Taliban militants and their al-Qaida allies is only possible if those groups are rejected by the broader populations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
To that end, Obama’s national security team wants to focus not only on military operations but on broader nation building to make life better for the beleaguered people in both nations.
Can Obama, Karzai and Zardari keep a lid on spiraling violence, sustain sufficient peace for his new policy to work?
The Taliban has significantly stepped up attacks on both sides of the forbidding, mountainous border that separates the South Asian neighbors.
Acknowledging that “the road ahead will be difficult,” Obama said he has made a “lasting commitment” to not only defeat extremism in both countries but to salvage their shaky democracies.
“No matter what happens we will not be deterred,” Obama said Wednesday with Zardari and Karzai standing at his side in the White House.
Earlier, as the summit began, Clinton called the gathering a “breakthrough meeting,” telling reporters the sessions covered trade, water sharing, military training and anti-corruption drives among other issues.
“We are facing a common enemy, and we have, therefore, made common cause together,” Clinton said at a ceremonial opening, also flanked by Karzai and Zardari in her department’s ornate Benjamin Franklin Room.
While encouraged, the Obama team faces an extended and costly task in both countries. It has a solid plan for success, but there is no certainty the America people will sustain the patience needed, nor that the U.S. Treasury has sufficient dollars.