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Afghan, Pak leaders committed to crushing Taliban: Clinton

Last updated on: May 07, 2009 10:25 IST
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was obviously so impressed by her meetings with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari that she ventured into the White House briefing room after sitting in on the meetings between President Barack Obama and the two leaders, to express her optimism that a solid alliance had been formed committed to crushing the Taliban and other extremist elements destabilising the region.

It was hard to imagine how she seems to have hit of off with Zardari considering that less then two weeks ago she denounced his government and virtually accused it of having surrendered to the terrorists.

At the time, appearing before the United States House Foreign Affairs Committee, she minced no words over the Obama administration's anger with the Zardari government for striking a deal with the Taliban in the Swat Valley, and said, 'I think the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists.'

But as one administration official told, it probably helped that that deal was now history and the Taliban and the Pakistani security forces were now engaged in a full scale war and Zardari was now only too willing to play ball and with it secure as much goodies as he could from predator drones, attack helicopters, night vision goggles and the rest which he had expressed as his wish list.

Clinton, who presided over the meetings between the Afghanistan and Pakistan delegations led by Karzai and Zardari at the state department, in addition to private meetings, both bilaterally and trilaterally, with both leaders, said, "the takeaway is that this process is producing some very promising early signs."

She said, "The level of cooperation between the governments of the two countries is increasing. The confidence-building that is necessary for this relationship to turn into tangible cooperation is moving forward. And I think today's series of meeting is another step along the road."

Clinton also expressed a sense of nostalgia, reminiscing that when she met at the Willard Hotel with Zardari she had had "a chance to see for the first time in 10 years his son, Bilawal Zardari -- actually Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. I had not seen him since he was a young boy. And so it was really a personal call that I wanted to make on both of them."

Also, just weeks after the Obama administration had given the impression that it was so disappointed with the Zardari government, the army didn't look too bad an alternative in Pakistan if just to stabilise the situation in that country and prevent it from imploding, Clinton said, besides reaffirming Washington's "strong support for him as the democratically elected President, being able to say 'democratically elected President of Pakistan,' had a pleasant ring to it because "it's not a common phrase."

And, if there was any doubt that the administration had now rallied behind Zardari, she said, "it's imperative that we support President Zardari and work with him as he extends the reach of the government not only on security, as essential as that is, but also on a range of needs of the Pakistani people."

Clinton said she had told "each that coming out of this trilateral meeting, we will basically have work plans. We're going to be very specific. We don't want any misunderstanding, we don't want any mixed signals, we want to know what we have agreed to, what they have agreed to, how we are going to proceed toward meeting those goals and objectives and timetables that will be utilised to keep all of us focused on the job ahead."

She described the meeting as not just "significant," but "in some ways a breakthrough meeting," and pointed out that "the high-level participation from our government was very important, and the high level participation from each of the delegations."

"A number of the comparable ministers had never met each other. They may have talked on the phone about border security or police training or intelligence sharing, but they hadn't actually met in several instances."

Clinton spoke of how she was "extremely impressed by the candor that was really evidenced throughout the meeting. And it was a physical manifestation of our strategy of viewing Afghanistan and Pakistan as a region challenge but also a regional opportunity."

She reiterated that "I'm very optimistic that this process is making a difference," though she acknowledged that "I'm realistic enough to know that two meetings does not necessarily turn around the many difficult and complex challenges that confront these two countries and is and our relationship to them."

Clinton said that "both presidents spoke very movingly about the threat and dangers of terrorism," which she added, showed they are "committed to this conflict being resolved and their being able to produce more peace and security."

Her optimism even provoked her to involve an ancient Afghan proverb, which she said, notes that 'Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.'

Clinton said "patience is not always in great supply inside our own government, or even inside our own country. But I think in this instance, the kind of patient strategy that the president has adopted and the steps that we are all taking to implement this strategy is the only way forward."

Administration officials said that instilling in Pakistan that it was not India but the internal Taliban and extremist groups that were the existential threat, which had been hammered away so often by the administration even before the meetings "was hardly mentioned, because it was a given."

They said what had been stressed by administration officials in the discussions with Zardari and his delegation, particularly the military and intelligence officials, including the head of the Inter Services Intelligence directorate, Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha, was that it was time to move large divisions away from the Indian border to the western border to take on the Taliban and there had been an acceptance in principle by the Pakistanis that this was something they would seriously consider.

When a reporter reminded her of her sharp criticism of the Zardari government hardly two weeks ago and her 'abdicating to the Taliban,' comment, Clinton shot back, "I'm actually impressed by the actions that the Pakistani government is now taking. I think that action was called for and action has been forthcoming."

She even went on the rationalize the Pakistani state of denial, arguing that "this is a long, difficult struggle, and the leadership of Pakistan, both civilian and military, really had to work on significant paradigm shifts in order to be able to see this threat as those of us on the outside perceived it."

Clinton said now she believed "that has occurred, and I think that there is a resolve going forward. There are still some challenges in terms of assets and resources and approach toward dealing with not a standing army across a border, but the kind of insurgency and guerilla warfare that is being waged against the legitimate authority of the Pakistani State."

When asked if the Pakistanis have gotten out of their state of denial, which also includes a recognition that India is not the mortal threat, and if or why the administration has taken greater action to help to normalise relations between India and Pakistan, America's top diplomat was scrupulously circumspect.

Clinton declared, "Well, everything in due time," not saying anything further on this subject.

Earlier, an upbeat Obama, flanked by Karzai and Zardari, said at the end of their half-hour tripartite summit that he was pleased "that these two men -- elected leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan -- full appreciate the seriousness of the threat that we face, and have reaffirmed their commitment to confronting it."

In remarks delivered in the Grand Foyer of the White House, Obama who had also spent half-an-hour each separately with each leader before the trilateral meeting, said he was also "pleased that we have advanced unprecedented cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan on a bilateral basis -- and among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States—which will benefit all of our people."

The atmospherics was obviously a far cry from the somber remarks he made in March when he unveiled his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy and also just a little more than a week ago during a press briefing to mark his 100 days in office, when he seemed to have given up on both leaders, particularly Zardari and had called the latter's government 'fragile,' and not enjoying the 'loyalty' of the people of Pakistan because it had failed to deliver on all fronts -- from fighting the Taliban and other extremists groups to addressing education, health-care and other social and financial problems that had all but relegated Pakistan to the lowly status of a failed State.

At the time, Karzai did not enjoying Obama's confidence either, since Afghanistan was also caught up in rampant corruption at the government level compounding the threat it faced from a resurgent Taliban.

But on Wednesday, all seemed to have been forgotten -- or perhaps forgiven for the time being -- on the strength of the leaders' avowed commitment to scrupulously follow the Obama AfPak strategy playbook, which as the president said at the outset of his remarks "reflects a fundamental truth: The security of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States are linked."

"In the weeks that have followed, that truth has only been reinforced. Al Qaeda and its allies have taken more lives in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and have continued to challenge the democratically-elected governments of the two presidents standing here today," he said. "Meanwhile, Al Qaeda plots against the American people -- and people around the world -- from their safe haven along the border."

Perhaps it helped that Karzai and Zardari are not at each other's throats unlike Karzai and then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf were, and during a similar tripartite summit hosted by then US president George W Bush, only would glare at each other and didn't even shake hands.

Here were Karzai and Zaradari at every meeting during the run-up to the White House summit talking about Afghans and Pakistanis being "brothers" and "sisters" with long traditions and then putting their arms around one another when accompanying Obama to the podium and after the US president finished his remarks -- thus, the symbolism, if not anything else was palpable.

Of course, the professed camaraderie and the symbolism of "brotherly love" perhaps was just that, because Obama did infuse a reality check in his remarks, saying, " Now there's much to be done," and he spelled it out.

"Along the border where insurgents often move freely, we must work together with a renewed sense of partnership to share intelligence, and to coordinate out efforts to isolate, target and take out our common enemy," he said. "But we must also meet the threat of extremism with a positive programme of growth and opportunity. And that's why my administration is working with members of Congress to create opportunity zones to spart development. That's why I'm proud that we've helped to open Afghanistan and Pakistan borders to more commerce."

Senior White House officials said at the start of his meeting, Obama profusely apologised to Karzai for the civilian casualties in the wake of a US bombing, which Karzai had expressed angst over earlier before his bilateral with Clinton and complained that it was these kinds of bombings that breeds resentment among the Afghan people and anti-Americanism and feeds into the propaganda of the Taliban and other extremist groups.

In his remarks, Obama said -- after he had laid out what the US intends to do to help Afghanistan in terms of helping grow the economy and supporting free and fair elections later this year -- that "I also made it clear that the United States will work with our Afghan and international partners to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties as we help the Afghan government combat our common enemy."

US National Security Adviser retired General Jim Jones, in providing information about the bilateral and triateral meeting later, said, Obama had promised that "that the investigations underway will be pursued aggressively with full intent to discover what, in fact, did happen, how it happened, and how we can make sure that things like that do not happen again."

"And it was clear that President Karzai was moved by that -- by the president's statement, and he thanked the president for starting off the meeting with that expression of condolence," Jones said.

Obama, in his remarks, also after his virtually vote of no-confidence on Zardari, gave him a rousing boost, saying, "within Pakistan, we must provide lasting support to democratic institutions, while helping the government confront the insurgents who are the single greatest threat to the Pakistani State."

He said he had asked the US Congress "for sustained funding, to build schools and roads and hospitals," and declared that "I want the Pakistani people to understand that America is not simply against terrorism -- we are on the side of their hopes and their aspirations, because we know that the future of Pakistan must be determined by the talent, innovation and intelligence of its people."

But Obama reiterated the challenges ahead, acknowledging again that "the road ahead will be difficult. There will be more violence, and there will be setbacks."

But he vowed that "the United States has made a lasting commitment to defeat Al Qaeda, but also to support the democratically elected sovereign governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan."

"That commitment will not waver. And that support will be sustained," Obama said.

He asserted that "no matter what happens, we will not be deterred. The aspirations of all our people -- for security, for opportunity and for justice -- are far more powerful than any enemy."

Obama said, "Those are the hopes that we in common for all of our children. So we will sustain our cooperation."

"And we will work for the day when our nations are linked not by a common enemy, but by a shared peace and prosperity, mutual interests and mutual respect, not only among governments but among our people."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC