Afghan, Pakistani Leaders Meet Clinton

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In Washington, it was a crucial day of meetings between the leaders of the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari huddled first with Secretary of State Clinton and later with President Obama and made a number of key commitments.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

News of the civilian deaths could not have come at a worse time for the Obama administration. The leaders of both Afghanistan and Pakistan were already in Washington today, at the White House and at the State Department, to talk about their struggles with the Taliban and al-Qaida. Still, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a breakthrough meeting. And President Obama said the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan share a common goal. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Flanked by his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts, President Obama stood in front of the cameras at the White House this afternoon to explain why he brought everyone together.

President BARACK OBAMA: The United States has a stake in the future of these two countries. We have learned, time and again, that our security is shared. It is the lesson that we learned most painfully on 9/11 and is a lesson that we will not forget.

KELEMEN: The first trilateral meeting of the day, over at the State Department, started with an apology. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat between the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan to say she's sorry for the high civilian death toll in the war against the Taliban and al-Qaida. It's an issue that makes it hard for leaders of both countries to cooperate with the US.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): Any loss of innocent life is particularly painful. And I want to convey to the people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan that, you know, we will work very hard with your governments and with your leaders to avoid the loss of innocent civilian life and we deeply, deeply regret that loss.

KELEMEN: Clinton made clear that Afghanistan and Pakistan need each other to counter extremism. And she said this is not just a military matter. She praised a deal that the foreign ministers of the two countries signed in front of her, promising to reach a trade and transit agreement by the end of this year.

Sec. CLINTON: This is an historic event. This agreement has been under discussion for 43 years without resolution.

KELEMEN: The secretary of state also brought together top officials from across the US government, including the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, to work on concrete ways the US can help Afghanistan and Pakistan. She said the governments of both have earned US support. Those were welcomed words for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has had a rocky relationship with the Obama administration.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): Madame Secretary, do have full confidence in us as the two countries sit together, that we'll be friends with you and colleagues with you.

KELEMEN: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has been making the rounds in Washington with a similar message, trying to drum up support for his young, weak government. He said, right now, Pakistan needs a high level of support. And he promised to be more transparent. Many lawmakers have questioned whether he'll really use aid to counter al-Qaida and the Taliban, Zardari says he will.

President ASIF ALI ZARDARI (Pakistan): We stand with our brother Karzai and the people of Afghanistan against this common threat, this menace, which I have called cancer. This is a cancer. It needs to be done away with. I understand that is a huge burden, confronting al-Qaida and Taliban together, but we are up to the challenge because we are the democracy and democracy is the only cure to this challenge.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Clinton recently said the Pakistani leaders were abdicating to the Taliban. But she told reporters today there has been a paradigm shift.

Sec. CLINTON: Well, I'm actually quite impressed by the action that the Pakistani government is now taking. I think that action was called for and action has been forthcoming. This is a long difficult struggle.

KELEMEN: She said the trilateral meetings, both at the State Department and the White House today, are producing some very promising early signs. And she says lower level officials will continue talking tomorrow to work on some concrete areas where all three countries can collaborate, build up trust and create an atmosphere of candor.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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Afghanistan-Pakistan Talks Highlight Complex Ties

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President Obama plays host Wednesday to the leaders of two countries that have been a central focus of his administration's foreign policy: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both are facing a resurgent Taliban, and Obama administration officials believe the two countries need each other to counter extremism in the region.

When Obama chose Richard Holbrooke to be a special representative for both countries, the idea was simple: You can't fix Afghanistan without Pakistan's help. Now, Pakistan looks to be the more urgent problem for the United States.

Holbrooke was on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, trying to convince skeptical lawmakers that they should be helping a Pakistani president whom many feel is not a reliable partner.

"Our goal must be unambiguously to support and help stabilize a democratic Pakistan headed by its elected president, Asif Ali Zardari," Holbrooke said.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) was not easily convinced. "Let me be blunt," Ackerman said. "Pakistan's pants are on fire."

Ackerman argued that rather than recognizing the urgent danger of extremism in Pakistan, the country's leaders "seem convinced that if left alone or attacked piecemeal, the Islamist flame will simply burn itself out."

A Balancing Act

Holbrooke tried to tamp down the drama at a time when Congress is considering tripling nonmilitary aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year. "We do not think Pakistan is a failed state," Holbrooke said. Rather, he said, it is a government that is facing tremendous challenges and needs U.S. help to counter the Taliban.

Obama has a delicate balancing act Wednesday as well. On the one hand, the administration needs to persuade Congress to boost both military and nonmilitary aid to Pakistan and show that Pakistan's government deserves the support. On the other hand, the administration has been trying to turn up the heat on Zardari's government to take decisive action against extremists and ensure the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

Obama administration officials also have complicated relations with Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, though he was upbeat on the eve of the trilateral meetings. Speaking at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, Karzai said that there have been difficult moments in U.S.-Afghan relations.

"We've had ups and downs," he said, referring to U.S. complaints about corruption in Afghanistan, and Afghan concerns about civilian casualties in the war. But, Karzai said, "the fundamentals of this relationship are very, very strong."

Holbrooke says Wednesday's meetings are "historically important." The delegations from Afghanistan and Pakistan will meet separately and jointly with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department and with Obama at the White House.

Holbrooke pointed out that many of the government officials have never met each other, "yet for the United States, our most vital national security interests depend on cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Holbrooke said the two countries have a long and complicated history of animosity, and the idea of these trilateral meetings is to come up with some concrete guidelines to cooperate in the fight against extremists.

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