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Leaders to discuss Pakistan strategy

White House summit aims to stem crisis

Paul Richter And Christi Parsons Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will meet the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan today for talks at the White House to hastily overhaul a painstakingly developed security strategy that was unveiled only five weeks ago but already has become badly outdated.

The three countries spent months developing the plan to combat an insurgency centered in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. But they are being forced to switch focus because of surging militant activity within Pakistan that is emerging as Obama’s first major foreign policy crisis.

U.S. officials fear the militants could fracture Pakistan, the far larger nation, destabilizing the region and even placing control of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal at risk.

Obama will press Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to intensify his country’s fight against the insurgency, step up economic development efforts and reach out to political rivals to broaden the fragile government’s base of support.

Yet U.S. officials acknowledge that their influence on the government is limited, consisting mostly of the money and arms they can supply. One sign of America’s limited influence is that the Pakistani general who has the most control over the country’s military effort isn’t attending the meetings.

Afghanistan, in contrast, is deemed more manageable: “By comparison, it looks like Canada,” one U.S. official said.

The summit convenes as intensified fighting rages in the Swat Valley, near Islamabad, where Pakistani officials once had hoped to strike a cease-fire by agreeing to Taliban control over much of the area. Taliban militants last month attempted to advance closer to the capital, igniting the military confrontation.

Obama announced his new Afghanistan-Pakistan security plan in March, pledging extra combat forces and training units for Afghanistan and aid to Pakistan. But the militant advances and subsequent fighting in Pakistan have overtaken the strategy.

Obama today will meet separately with Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai before the three have discussions together. The summit also will bring together senior military, intelligence and political officials in an effort to coordinate activities.

At the same time, administration officials are seeking regional support for the efforts. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, visiting Riyadh, appealed for Saudi Arabia’s help in backing Pakistani efforts to repel militants.

Karzai and Zardari each met with key lawmakers and policy analysts Tuesday in Washington.

The job of the three leaders is complicated by growing Pakistani opposition to unmanned U.S. aircraft strikes and by rising Afghan frustration over civilian casualties.

Acknowledging the anti-American sentiment, U.S. and Pakistani leaders will lay plans to train Pakistani troops elsewhere in the region, discreetly out of sight.

The summit comes at a time of unusual friction in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complained last month that the Zardari government has “basically abdicated” to militants.

And Clinton and other U.S. officials have spoken openly about concerns for the safety of the estimated 60 to 100 Pakistani nuclear weapons, a subject that previous U.S. administrations avoided in public.

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, said the two countries are in agreement on the way forward, and predicted that in the meetings “past recriminations about who is to blame will be replaced by plans for who will do what.” Pakistani officials have complained that despite U.S. commitments, little new economic and military aid has been sent.

The Defense Department has proposed $400 million for military aid, and the State Department is pushing for $497 million for economic, law enforcement and refugee assistance. In addition, Obama’s regional strategy proposed $1.5 billion a year for five years as part of a bill that also sets conditions for the aid.

Pakistanis dislike the conditions, saying they represent meddling and pose both political and operational problems.

Similarly, Pakistanis have objected to U.S. overtures to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a move the Obama administration has said is no different than contacts with opposition leaders in other countries but that Pakistanis fear is meant to undermine Zaradari’s government.

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