May 7, 2009 in Nation/World

‘We are up to the challenge’

Leaders pledge unity in fighting extremists
Paul Richter And Christi Parsons Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau
 
Associated Press photo

Residents of Mingora and Buner, in the Swat Valley, line up for food Wednesday in a camp set up for those who fled the fighting between Taliban militants and Pakistani government security forces. The camp is in Mardan, near Peshawar, Pakistan.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama and the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, setting aside months of friction, committed themselves again Wednesday to their faltering joint effort against Taliban and al-Qaida extremists.

After a day of talks, Obama said he was satisfied that the leaders “fully appreciate the seriousness of the threats we face, and have reaffirmed their commitment to confronting it.”

The president also moved to quell any doubts about U.S. support for the two embattled leaders, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, saying U.S. backing would not waver.

However, the first round of the two-day summit appeared to leave the Obama administration largely where it began: confronting advancing deterioration in two strategically vital countries where it must rely on leaders who have fallen markedly short of U.S. hopes before now.

In Pakistan on Wednesday, the government launched air and ground attacks against as many as 7,000 Taliban militants entrenched in a northwestern valley, killing dozens holed up at emerald mines and on forested hillsides.

With militants fighting back and weary refugees lining up at camps, the operation will be a test of whether the Pakistani army has the will, capability and political support to defeat an enemy that had three months under a now-shattered peace deal to rest and regroup.

Wednesday’s clashes followed the collapse of a three-month-old truce in the Swat Valley that saw the government impose Islamic law. It was widely criticized in the West as a surrender to the militants.

In the day’s meetings, Obama did not extract new pledges from the Pakistanis to deploy more troops against militants, said White House officials, describing the private sessions on condition of anonymity.

And the president did not raise the politically sensitive issue of shifting Pakistani troops from the border with India, where most of them are massed, to the western frontier, as U.S. officials would prefer, the officials said.

Nevertheless, the Afghan and Pakistani leaders voiced commitment to the three-nation effort, even signaling their endorsement of a written plan for carrying it out, the White House officials said, without elaborating.

The summit was convened to refocus an effort that was thrown off course by alarming advances by Taliban and al-Qaida extremists, who have moved from sanctuaries along the western border regions to more populous areas of Pakistan.

U.S. officials have been pressuring the Pakistanis to do more against the militants, while intensified fighting in Afghanistan has sharpened differences between the United States and Karzai.

The White House national security adviser, James L. Jones, a retired army general, said Zardari offered a “pretty powerful expression” of support for combating extremism, but acknowledged the likelihood of difficulties ahead.

“Miracles will not happen,” he said. “So this will not happen quickly.” In a morning meeting with Clinton and other senior officials from the three countries at the State Department, Zardari promised: “We are up to the challenge. … My democracy will deliver.”

Zardari, who has been pressing for a speed-up of military and economic aid, also said his government “needs attention and needs nurturing” from the United States.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have a long history of disputes, but Karzai described the two countries as “conjoined twins.”

U.S. officials have openly expressed unhappiness with both governments. But officials also said that they are prepared to deal with them, and have pointed to few alternatives.

The meetings this week brought together Pakistani and Afghan officials with an high level cast of Obama administration officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder; CIA Director Leon Panetta; FBI Director Robert Mueller; Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan; and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Mideast.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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