WASHINGTON, March 1 – After setting a deadline to pull US forces from Iraq, President Barack Obama is shifting gears quickly to Afghanistan and Pakistan as he lays out a broad, regional approach to fighting extremism.
The Obama administration held three days of talks until Thursday with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan and said it would turn it into a regular dialogue to chart a new course in the "war on terror."
Obama has vowed to put a top priority on bringing stability to the lawless and rugged terrain between the South Asian neighbors — the home base for Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants including, most presume, Osama bin Laden.
Obama, who Friday announced a timeline to end the Iraq mission, is sending 17,000 more US troops to Afghanistan. But he said the United States needed an effort broader than just hunting and killing militants.
"We’ve been thinking very militarily, but we haven’t been as effective in thinking diplomatically, we haven’t been thinking effectively around the development side of the equation," Obama said Friday on PBS television.
"Obviously, we haven’t been thinking regionally, recognizing that Afghanistan is actually an Afghanistan-Pakistan problem, because right now the militants… are often times coming over the border from Pakistan," he said.
All three sides hailed the openness of the Washington talks, with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi saying that the new administration compared with president George W. Bush’s is "really willing to listen to us."
But disputes are simmering just under the surface.
US and Afghan policymakers accuse elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence services of turning a blind or even sympathetic eye to the Taliban — whose regime ousted in 2001 had been allied with Islamabad.
Pakistan, in turn, is angered by US unmanned drone attacks on its territory which have killed high-level militants but also civilians — inflaming local opinion.
Pakistan has urged, so far unsuccessfully, the new Obama administration to halt the attacks and hand over the drones to them.
Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state from Obama’s Democratic Party, predicted a long haul to sort out problems in the region.
"I think this is a very large challenge and unfortunately it got bigger because the previous administration had focused so much on Iraq and not Afghanistan and Pakistan," she said on MSNBC television.
The Obama team’s calls for a regional approach come as relations sharply improve between Islamabad and Kabul after Pakistan’s civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari, took over last year from military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
But Zardari is under intense pressure. Thousands of demonstrators recently took to the street in support of his nemesis, Nawaz Sharif, after the Supreme Court banned the former prime minister from running for office.
India has also been demanding more action from Pakistan and accused its powerful spy agency of helping plot November’s attacks by Islamic militants in Mumbai that killed 165 people.
Senator John McCain, Obama’s rival for the presidency last year, said that Washington must stop looking at Pakistan just through the lens of the Afghan conflict and treat the nuclear-armed country as important in its own right.
"We should start by empowering the new civilian government in Islamabad to defeat radicalism with greater support for development, health and education," McCain said.
John Dempsey of the United States Institute of Peace said the Obama administration and its new special envoy to South Asia, Richard Holbrooke, would try to find ways the countries could work together, saying all sought less terrorism and more trade.
"They do have common interests in certain areas that you should try to promote," said Dempsey, who heads the institute’s Kabul office.
"Pakistan, for all the criticism it gets, has been suffering from the scourge of terrorism as much as anyone," he said.