WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama presents his strategy for defeating al Qaeda to the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan on Wednesday amid growing U.S. concern it is losing the war and neither is a reliable ally.
The White House meetings with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai are likely to be cagey affairs — both visitors have been heavily criticized by Obama’s administration and are also wary of each other.
Equally, Obama’s new strategy for defeating al Qaeda and Taliban militants operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan has not been universally welcomed in either country.
Wednesday is Obama’s first face-to-face meeting with the two men to discuss his new regional strategy and is a chance to air his concerns about corruption and poor governance.
One of the biggest challenges will be to convince Pakistan to take the threat of Islamist militancy seriously and prevent the Taliban using its soil to attack Afghanistan, a major bone of contention between Islamabad and Kabul.
“Pakistanis have a fundamental doctrinal disjuncture with what’s happening because they are ... geared to dealing with India while they are facing marauders from the west,” said Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism with the Bush administration.
As they seek reliable allies in the region, U.S. officials can sometimes give conflicting signals, at times praising cooperation with Pakistan’s military and at others accusing it and its powerful spy agency of helping al Qaeda.
“Some have raised concern that elements within the Pakistani military and intelligence services may be sympathetic to militant groups, leading to caution on our part,” Obama’s undersecretary of defence for policy, Michele Flournoy, told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee in written testimony last week.
Obama’s administration has promised more money to boost development in Pakistan but has sounded even more frustrated with its civilian government.
Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Islamabad of abdicating to the Taliban by agreeing to impose Islamic law in the Swat valley, while Obama expressed grave concern the government was “very fragile” and unable to deliver basic services.
As he seeks to wind down the war in Iraq, Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan has won some praise for its focus on boosting aid and development and not relying entirely on a military solution to the fight against al Qaeda.
“Today the war is being lost in Afghanistan, but is not yet lost,” Bruce Riedel, an author of Obama’s strategy, wrote in a piece for the Brookings Institution think tank last week. “President Obama has decided to send the resources to the war to break the movement of the Taliban. He is right to do so.”
But some argue it does not go far enough to change past policies that have failed to yield results.
Many Pakistanis are angry that U.S. drone attacks on their soil have continued under Obama. Aimed at al Qaeda’s leaders, the strikes from unmanned aircraft have often killed civilians.
Others complain the United States has undermined democracy in Pakistan for decades by supporting and funding its powerful military.
Pakistan’s army is now fighting the Taliban for control of Buner valley, a strategic northern region near Islamabad, but appears to have ceded control of large parts of the country’s north and west to the militants.
Although Obama said last week he was confident about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the issue may well be raised at the meeting with Zardari.
On Monday, the New York Times reported growing concern among U.S. officials that militants might try to snatch a nuclear weapon in transit or insert sympathizers into laboratories or fuel-production facilities.
Hawks within the Pakistani establishment fear Karzai’s government is too close to arch-rival India and see support for the Taliban as a way of maintaining influence in neighbouring Afghanistan, especially for the day the Americans leave.
“The Pakistani military and intelligence services remain convinced that the prime enemy of Pakistan continues to be India,” retired U.S. Lieutenant General David Barno told a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing.
“No experienced security or political leaders truly believe in the depth of their hearts that the United States is a long-term player in the region, much less a reliable partner to Pakistan.”
Editing by Simon Denyer and John O'Callaghan