Afghan massacre overshadows US talks

Click to follow

President Barack Obama attempted today to add crucial geo-political ballast to his campaign for stability and peace in central Asia staging a three-way summit in Washington with his counterparts from Afghanistan and Pakistan laden with symbolic gestures of unity and common purpose in fighting terrorism.

But the careful choreography of a summit that will wind up today was overshadowed by the bombing raid by US forces in Afghanistan that killed dozens of innocent civilians.

For Mr Obama, who is staking his foreign policy reputation on containing the crisis in the region, the timing of the tragedy in Afghanistan could hardly have been worse. In March he unveiled a new strategy that aims to deal with the threats posed by extremist Islamists and terror groups concurrently both in Pakistan and Afghanistan and he has committed 21,000 additional US troops to the ground in the latter.

Seated between President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari, Mrs Clinton expressed regret for the deaths, which seem certain only to foster anti-American sentiment in the region, exactly the opposite of what Washington would hope for.

"We deeply, deeply regret that loss," Mrs Clinton began. "We don't know all of the circumstances or causes and there will be a joint investigation…but any loss of innocent life is particularly painful."

Mr Karzai was expected to press home his dismay with mounting numbers of civilian losses in a bilateral meeting with Mr Obama ahead of a three-way session attended by all three presidents.

Events in the region are now at the top of Mr Obama's foreign policy agenda. While earlier in his administration, he stressed his interest in bolstering the military and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, officials now concede that the focus has been shifting more towards Pakistan.

Alarm about the viability of Pakistan and of President Zardari's leadership deepened quickly over recent weeks amid new advances by Taliban forces even towards the capital Islamabad and the collapse of a controversial ceasefire in the Swat region. Compounding worries about the state's ability or willingness to counter the advances is uncertainty about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

Some consolation will be drawn from the mood music of the Washington meetings this week. Under the eyes of Mrs Clinton, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed a new transit treaty setting new goals for cross-border commerce between them that as eluded both sides for nearly 40 years.

Moreover, both countries' presidents were at pains to insist that they were at last linking arms in combating the threat of terrorism. The smiles contrasted with the atmosphere of smouldering enmity when Mr Karzai and the then Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf met here in 2006. Both countries used the occasion to accuse the other of failing to tackle the terrorists and their leaders left without shaking hands.

"Our threat is common and our responsibilities should be shared. I am here to assure that we should share this burden with you," Mr Karzai said sharing a table with Mrs Clinton and Mr Zardari.

President Zardari, who has been strongly criticised for his failure to prevent the recent inroads by the Taliban, also took care to speak warmly of Mr Karzai and pleaded to the US and other countries for their continuing support. A bill before the US Congress aims to increase aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year. However, the US may set some hard benchmarks for Pakistan to meet if it is to continue flowing.

"My democracy needs attention and needs nurturing," Mr Zardari pleaded. "Pakistani democracy will deliver, the terrorists will be delivered by our joint struggle. Me, my friend, President Karzai and the United States ... will stand shoulder to shoulder with the world to fight this cancer and this threat."

Mrs Clinton added a condition of her own regarding the marginalisation of women. "This is not just me speaking, this is the American government speaking," she began, insisting that democracy would not thrive "without the full participation of all your citizens, including women and girls".

Not on display in Washington were the private doubts held by many in the Obama administration about the leadership qualities of both visiting presidents. Some distance has already been between the US and Mr Karzai, a sharp contrast to the almost chummy relationship he enjoyed with George Bush. "On all fronts, Hamid Karzai has plateaued as a leader," one senior US official was quoted as saying. There is at least as much nervousness behind the scenes about Mr Zardari's competence and commitment.