MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This week, the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan travel to Washington to meet with President Obama. The two countries are at the center of one of the administration's toughest foreign policy challenges. The summit was meant to build relations, but it's now likely to focus on Pakistan. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, U.S. officials are increasingly anxious about the deteriorating security situation there.
JACKIE NORTHAM: When President Obama unveiled his administration's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was carefully calibrated on certain assumptions about the state of play in both countries. It's unlikely the Taliban's recent offensive into areas just 60 miles from the Pakistani capital Islamabad was one of those assumptions. The Obama administration appeared caught off guard by the speed of the offensive. It sparked high-level meetings at the White House and the National Security Council. Senior diplomats and military officials began pressuring the Pakistanis to do something. But the Pakistani government and military seemed hesitant, even reluctant. The concern in Washington was clear in a statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): I think that the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists.
NORTHAM: Shortly after that statement, the Pakistani military began a counteroffensive. Andrew Exum, with the Center for a New American Security, says that Clinton's statement obviously hit a nerve.
Mr. ANDREW EXUM (Center for a New American Security): It sure did. Never underestimate the pride of the Pakistani military. It think the Pakistani military still sees itself as a national institution that all Pakistanis should be proud of. And certainly, when Hillary Clinton said something, that certainly attracted a lot of attention in Pakistan.
NORTHAM: It attracted more attention than months, years of U.S. efforts to persuade Pakistan that the Taliban does represent a threat to its stability. Pakistan has historically seen neighboring India as its greatest threat. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates sounded cautiously optimistic that the recent Taliban offensive may finally have sounded an alarm bell in Pakistan.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): I think those realities that have begun to dawn on them, I think, provide some grounds for - I won't go as far as optimism, but some grounds to believe that there is a growing awareness in Islamabad and in Pakistan that this is a threat to them.
NORTHAM: But other U.S. officials say they'll wait and see what the Pakistani government and military do in the coming days and months, whether they'll continue to go after the Taliban or hammer out yet another peace deal with the militants.
Daniel Markey, a South Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the evolving situation should push the Obama administration to review its strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The emphasis of that strategy is on Afghanistan. Markey says that should change.
Mr. DANIEL MARKEY (South Asia Specialist, the Council on Foreign Relations): The Pakistan side should be the focal point for new initiatives. And I think from what I'm gathering from various administration officials, they recognize this, but I think that they're at least a step and a half behind on the Pakistani piece of the story.
NORTHAM: Andrew Exum with the Center for a New American Security says part of the problem is the U.S. has limited options in Pakistan.
Mr. EXUM: So if you look at Afghanistan, you put a, you know, couple tens of thousands of troops on the ground, suddenly you've got a lot of leverage. We don't have any leverage in Pakistan, and I don't think anybody thinks it would be a good idea for us to put tens of thousands on the ground in Pakistan. That would certainly just aggravate the situation. But having said that, we've got to figure out some way to stabilize Pakistan.
NORTHAM: One of the ways the Obama administration hopes to win Pakistan's cooperation and trust is to open the financial spigots, to help build its democratic institutions, boost its economy and help the military battle Islamist extremists. But there's reluctance among some members of Congress to loosen the purse strings without conditions or assurances that Pakistan will live up to its end of the bargain. Daniel Markey with the Council on Foreign Relations says the U.S. has two options: make significantly greater investments in Pakistan, despite the frustrations.
Mr. DANIEL MARKEY: Or, at some point, which I hope we don't see, to step back and take another approach, which would be kind of a containment of Pakistan's approach. But I personally don't believe we should get there. I don't believe we are there at this point.
NORTHAM: In the meantime, the Obama administration appears to be using a carrot-and-stick approach, hoping the situation in Pakistan doesn't spin further out of control. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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