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The Af-Pak turnaround

After stepping up the heat,the Obama administration assures Zardari and Karzai that it feels their pain

Written by The Washington Post |
May 12, 2009 11:59:04 pm

After spending most of the past week in Washington,the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan can be excused if they leave town looking a little smug.

For weeks,Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari watched as senior officials of the new Obama administration publicly critiqued their leadership and all but openly courted their domestic rivals. Yet once they arrived in Washington,the two leaders were showered with attention,sympathy and promises of support from an administration whose handling of the mounting trouble in what it calls “Afpak” has been as mercurial as it has been energetic.

“I’m pleased that these two men,elected leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan,fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat that we face and have reaffirmed their commitment to confronting it,” Obama declared. He added: “The United States has made a lasting commitment to defeat al-Qaida 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.”

The strong statement was an important signal for elites in both countries who may have begun to wonder if the US was seeking to oust one or both leaders. It was also a needed corrective for a new American team that has been quick to understand the danger to vital US interests in the two countries but slower to grasp the realities of what US policy can accomplish,how quickly — and through whom.

In Afghanistan,tensions between US military commanders and Karzai were rising before Obama took office,partly because the Afghan president was seen as too accommodating toward ineffective or corrupt officials but also because Karzai insisted on publicly reproaching US and NATO forces for civilian casualties. The Obama administration’s initial strategy was to work around Karzai by focusing on ministers and governors considered pro-American. But US officials also began encouraging several leading Afghan politicians to challenge Karzai in the presidential election. The hope was to give the incumbent a scare and show Afghans that he was not propped up by Washington.

The tactic failed. Karzai not only managed to persuade or intimidate his rivals into staying out of the presidential race but also turned for support to a powerful former warlord,Mohammed Fahim,whom he named as his vice president. By the time he arrived in Washington,Karzai had a virtual lock on another five-year term. The administration was put further on the defensive when Afghan civilians died a week ago in what appeared to be another errant US bombing raid. Obama responded by opening his meeting with Karzai with an expression of sympathy and regret for the civilian casualties. He also made clear that the administration understands the need to work with Karzai.

Zardari was enjoying a similar recovery in his Washington stock. The struggling president was publicly excoriated by administration officials after he agreed to a cease-fire with Taliban militants in the Swat region. Clinton declared at a congressional hearing that “the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban.” American officials began focusing attention on Nawaz Sharif,a strategy that raised difficult questions: Since Zardari’s term extends until 2013,was Washington seeking to promote an unconstitutional solution — perhaps another of Pakistan’s serial military coups? Events in Pakistan meanwhile unfolded much as Zardari predicted they would in his private conversations with US envoys.

By the time Zardari met with Obama and Clinton,the administration’s rhetoric about him had reversed. “I’m actually quite impressed by the actions that the Pakistani government is now taking,” said Clinton. The secretary of state went on to hint at the lesson the new administration might have learned in its first months. “I think if you are more understanding of both the history and the conditions,you can perhaps empathise a little bit but be smarter in the suggestions you make,understanding what the consequences will be.”

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