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Afghan-Pakistan Talks Come Amid Renewed Taliban Threat

May 6, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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President Obama met Wednesday with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, beginning talks on forging a plan to fight the Taliban. Pamela Constable of the Washington Post updates the story from Islamabad.
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GWEN IFILL: President Obama met face-to-face today with two vital allies in the fight against terrorism. The leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan came to Washington amid rising instability in both countries.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The three-way summit at the White House underscored the grave security threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Obama held the talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari after one-on-one sessions.

That was followed by a joint appearance. Mr. Obama said the talks were “extraordinarily productive.”

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: The road ahead will be difficult, and there will be more violence, and there will be setbacks. But let me be clear: 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: The summit came just a month after Mr. Obama called for a new, coordinated policy toward both nations.

Much of the focus today was on pressing Pakistan to abandon a three-month truce with the Taliban. And after meeting earlier with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others, President Zardari vowed to take action.

ASIF ALI ZARDARI, President of Pakistan: Our threat is common, and our responsibilities should be shared. I am here to assure you that we should share this burden with you all. For no matter how long it takes and what it takes, democracies will deliver. My democracy will deliver. The people of Pakistan stand with the people of United States and the people of Afghanistan.

KWAME HOLMAN: As Zardari spoke, Pakistani forces stepped up new attacks in the Swat Valley and Buner district to stop militants from moving into Islamabad, the capital.

The military reported more than 50 insurgents were killed in the day’s fighting, but there was word hundreds of Taliban reinforcements had poured in to seize police stations and government buildings in the region.

Back in Washington, Secretary Clinton said she’s “quite impressed” with the Pakistani actions. She also voiced sorrow over a U.S. bombing raid in Afghanistan that allegedly killed civilians on Monday.

HILLARY CLINTON, Secretary of State: Any loss of life, any loss of innocent life, is particularly painful. And I want to convey to the people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan that, you know, we will work very hard with your governments and with your leaders to avoid the loss of innocent civilian life. And we deeply, deeply regret that loss.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Associated Press released photos from the air strike in western Afghanistan showing villagers burying their dead. And the Red Cross confirmed finding dozens of bodies, including women and children.

But in Kabul, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army General David McKiernan said it’s not clear American bombing was to blame. He said, “We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions.”

Still, the issue of civilian deaths has been a major flashpoint in U.S.-Afghan relations. And President Karzai, who is running for re-election in August, made it a central issue in today’s Washington meetings.

HAMID KARZAI, President of Afghanistan: And we hope we can work together towards reducing and eventually completely removing the possibilities of civilian casualties as we move ahead in our war against terrorism, or in our struggle against terrorism.

KWAME HOLMAN: Karzai has accused Pakistan of lacking commitment in that struggle. Today, he said the Pakistani regime is a “neighbor” and “brother.”

The U.S. buildup in Afghanistan also is moving forward, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived there today to review the situation.

Overall, U.S. forces in Afghanistan will more than double by the end of the year to 68,000. Training for the Afghan army also will be stepped up in order to double its size by 2011.

Thousands flee Swat Valley

Pamela Constable
The Washington Post
Thousands and thousands of people are streaming down from Swat and Buner, which is the next district to it, partly because they're afraid of the Taliban and partly because they're afraid that serious fighting is about to be unleashed upon them.

GWEN IFILL: That was the view from Washington. For a view from the ground, Jeffrey Brown spoke earlier today with Pamela Constable, a Washington Post correspondent who has been reporting from both sides of the border. Tonight, she is in Islamabad.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pam Constable, thanks for joining us. You reported today that there are thousands of people fleeing the Swat Valley. Tell us about that. Tell us what's going on.

PAMELA CONSTABLE, Reporter, Washington Post: Well, in the last several days, as the peace deal between the government and the Taliban militants has become closer and closer to collapsing, and the Army has begun to move closer and closer to launching what appears to be a full-fledged attack in the area, people have begun streaming out in large numbers.

Thousands and thousands of people are streaming down from Swat and Buner, which is the next district to it, partly because they're afraid of the Taliban and partly because they're afraid that serious fighting is about to be unleashed upon them.

And they are -- in many cases, people bringing nothing with them but the clothes on their backs and a few belongings they've been able to gather together. People are leaving on foot. They're leaving in buses, in trucks. And there really is not necessarily any place for them to go.

JEFFREY BROWN: And as to the seriousness or potential seriousness of the fighting, is there a sense now from people you talk to that the Pakistani army is ready to go in and try to push and remove the Taliban from the area?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: They seem to be getting to that point. Up until now, they have not declared any major military operation. They've been fighting sporadically with militants in both districts.

But they still seem to be holding out hope that the peace deal can be salvaged, at least officially. But it does seem that there has been a sea change here in the attitude of the military, of the officials, and of the public that there was a great deal of denial for a long time that this was a serious problem.

And now I think everyone realizes that it is, indeed, a serious problem and it might require some very forceful and sustained forcible action.

The Taliban's strengths

Pamela Constable
The Washington Post
So they have a certain appeal. But they are enforcing their version of Islam, their very radical version of Islam, by using, you know, terrible means, cutting off the heads of policemen, killing teachers, killing tribal elders.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what about the strength at this point, strength or capabilities, popularity of the Taliban itself? They've been, certainly, very public, including talking to reporters like yourself.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: It's interesting you should use the word "popularity," because that's not used very much about the Taliban, but it's an important point. These people do not only use force and intimidation. They also appeal to people.

And in Swat, they were appealing to the people's need for a better, less-corrupt, and more fair justice system. They also appealed to class sentiments. They present themselves as a kind of Robin Hood force, representing peasants against landlords, representing poor people against a corrupt justice system.

So they have a certain appeal. But they are enforcing their version of Islam, their very radical version of Islam, by using, you know, terrible means, cutting off the heads of policemen, killing teachers, killing tribal elders.

There's no doubt that this is a very rapacious and cruel force. And it's become increasingly clear to the people of those areas that the vision, the appeal that has been put out by the Taliban is really not one that is going to leave them with the peace and justice that they've hoped for but is really going to leave them with something very frightening.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, of course, all this is happening as President Zardari is here in Washington for talks. What does your reporting tell you about his political strengths at this point, particularly when it comes to pushing the army to take this fight to the Taliban?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, everyone that I have talked to in Pakistan in recent days has expressed what I'd call deep disappointment that President Zardari and his team have not been more forceful on this issue, that it's taken them quite a long time to get around to realizing what a serious internal threat the country has and to put less blame, point fewer fingers towards India and other places, and to really start looking inward.

I do think that is happening now. But the question is, meanwhile, the Taliban has grown in strength. Now the fight is going to be much tougher than it would have been even a few weeks ago.

So I do think the message is clear. I do think that everybody now realizes from the top on down that this is a serious menace to this society and that this is not a normal kind of Islam, that this is something that is truly a threat to this Muslim society and its way of life. I think that's very clear now.

The question is, does the government, the civilian-led government, have the willpower and the authority to finally unleash the military forces, if that's what it takes?

Threat from Taliban increasing

Pamela Constable
The Washington Post
There was...a terrible incident two days ago in which there was a Taliban attack, and then there was retaliation by American and NATO forces..out in the western part of Afghanistan. And somewhere between 30 and 100 civilians, apparently, were killed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, moving to Afghanistan, where I know you've also been in recent days, what's the strength there of the Taliban and fears of increased violence, including in the capital?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: We haven't had a major attack in the capital in quite some time, which is a good thing, but there's been lots of bad news. There was, you know, a terrible incident two days ago in which there was a Taliban attack, and then there was retaliation by American and NATO forces way, way out in the western part of Afghanistan. And somewhere between 30 and 100 civilians, apparently, were killed.

This is, you know, a very controversial issue for Afghans. It's a very emotional issue. People get very upset about it. And it's always a blow to the American and NATO forces when something like this happens, because it reduces their credibility with the populace.

But that said, you know, over recent months, there has been this steadily escalating and intensifying threat by the Taliban, by the Islamic militias who have been coming closer to Kabul, who have been spreading their attacks in the north, not just in the south, which was their heartland.

As you know, there are a lot more foreign forces there now fighting back, you know, in some cases provoking attack, in some cases becoming lightning rods for attacks. But the presence now is massive, the international presence. So I think they are beginning to make a difference, but it's a long, long way to go still.

'Mutual blame' between countries

Pamela Constable
The Washington Post
There's a great deal of enmity and suspicion between Afghan and Pakistani leaders. That's going to be a very difficult thing to overcome. Certainly, a meeting in Washington will not suffice.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the Obama administration, of course, is now talking as though, in many ways, this is a single fight, these two countries. And I wonder, from your reporting and talking to officials in both countries, do they accept that? Do they see that?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Not really. In fact, I think very, very recently we've seen the beginning of U.S. officials also starting to think differently and to think that it may not be a single fight, even though I think the hope was that it would be.

There's a great deal of enmity and suspicion between Afghan and Pakistani leaders. That's going to be a very difficult thing to overcome. Certainly, a meeting in Washington will not suffice.

Both countries face very similar problems and very similar threats, and I think everybody realizes that. But because there's so much mutual blame, because the Afghans say that the Taliban and the al-Qaida are hiding in Pakistani sanctuaries and coming across the border to attack them, and because the Pakistanis say none of this would be happening if it weren't for the Afghans and the Pashtuns and the Afghan war, so as long as you have all those fingers continually pointed, I think it's very difficult for both of these countries to actually begin to seriously cooperate and find common cause against that common threat of terrorism and violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Pam Constable of the Washington Post in Islamabad, Pakistan, thank you very much.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: You're very welcome.