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U.S., Afghan, Pakistani Presidents To Hold War Council

Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai (right) and Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari are set to discuss the fight against the Taliban at the White House

Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai (right) and Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari are set to discuss the fight against the Taliban at the White House

(RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Barack Obama is set to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Washington.

The meeting at the White House will be the first time Obama meets with the Afghan and Pakistani leaders since he became president in January.

The extraordinary three-way gathering underlines the seriousness of what is rapidly becoming Washington's hottest foreign-policy challenge.

That challenge is how to roll back a resurgent Taliban whose fighters are widening the territory they control in northwest Pakistan despite government crackdowns, truces, and peace deals. Northwest Pakistan is the same area the Taliban and Al-Qaeda also use as a rear area and safe haven for their operations in Afghanistan.

The gravity of the Taliban threat in Pakistan has been amply on display in recent weeks. Militants who were already in control of Swat Valley following a peace deal with the government moved into neighboring areas as well, bringing them to within 100 kilometers of the capital, Islamabad.

Pakistani forces have pushed the militants back and launched a major offensive into Swat Valley itself. On May 5, the government urged people to evacuate their homes in Swat Valley's main town and some 500,000 people are expected to try to flee to safety.

The new refugees will join some 1 million mainly ethnic-Pashtun refugees who have already fled from other areas in northwest Pakistan over the past five years to escape the Taliban and periodic combat between Pakistani forces and the Islamist militia.

Backing Pakistan

With the Taliban waging war on both the Pakistani and Afghan governments, many U.S. officials view both countries as engulfed in a single crisis. The acronym for it in Washington is the "Af-Pak" crisis.

In the run-up to the May 6 meeting, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, suggested that prospects for winning the war with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda now increasingly depend upon the Pakistani government.

"Pakistan is of such immense importance to the United States, strategically and politically, that our goal must be unambiguously to support and help stabilize a democratic Pakistan headed by its elected president, Asif Ali Zardari," Holbrooke said in his first appearance before the U.S. Congress since becoming special envoy.

Residents fleeing the town of Mingora in Swat Valley on May 5
As Holbrooke met with a committee of Congress members who are increasingly worried by the developments in Pakistan, he sought to reassure them that its government has the will to roll back the militant threat.

"We do not think Pakistan is a failed state. We think it's a state under extreme test from the enemies who are also our enemies," Holbrooke said. "And we have, Mr. Chairman, the same common enemy."

The Taliban's recent move closer to Islamabad has raised concerns not only over the Pakistani Army's readiness to confront the militants but also over the stability of the government itself. Any creeping Talibanization of Pakistan also brings concerns over the security of the country's nuclear arsenal.

Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, said on May 5 that Zardari will tell Obama that "Pakistan has the will to confront violent extremism and terrorism, but we need American support to do it."

Obama is due to meet alone with Zardari for a 30-minute session, then for an additional 30 minutes with both Zardari and Karzai together. The U.S. president is expected to present his two counterparts with his strategy for confronting the Taliban threat.

The strategy emphasizes closer cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad, including a joint tightening of security along the two countries' porous border. That would help prevent militants from moving from one theater of operations to the other.

Bolstering Kabul

Obama is also likely to stress the importance of Afghanistan's upcoming presidential election for building support for the Kabul government.

The Afghan president's administration is frequently attacked by critics as weak and permissive of corruption and Karzai needs a strong new popular mandate if he is to address such problems in his second term.

Karzai, speaking in Washington on May 5, sought to reassure a U.S. audience of his commitment to the kind of free-and-fair elections that could give him, or a rival, strong popular support.

"The future of Afghanistan really lies in a free election, and fair election. The future of democracy lies there," Karzai said at the Brookings Institution think tank.

"I hope that the Afghan government, of which I've given the clearest possible instructions, and our partners in the international community will make sure that Afghans go to a free and fair election, which is the best and the only way of institutionalizing democracy."

The Afghan president, looking ahead to the meeting with Obama and Zardari, also said he recognizes that his country and Pakistan are linked in a common struggle.

"The return of the Taliban is because we did not address the question of sanctuaries [in Pakistan] in time," he said. "Unfortunately, today, Pakistan is suffering with us massively as a consequence of that."