Andrew Buncombe: Stakes at US summit could not be higher

Tuesday 05 May 2009 00:00
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When Asif Ali Zardari sees Barack Obama at the White House tomorrow for what is expected to be a tense meeting, the stakes could scarcely be higher.

Pakistanis had grown used to headlines writing off their country as a "nation on the brink". They would read them, dismiss them with a sigh and get on with their lives. But with Taliban fighters moving ever closer to Islamabad and efforts to broker a ceasefire in tatters, many Pakistanis are now publicly despairing about their country's fate.

So what's brought about the shift? First there was the harrowing video purporting to show militants in Swat flogging a teenage girl. Then Taliban fighters seized control of Buner, a strategically important valley just 60 miles from the capital. Finally, there were the comments from Sufi Muhammad – the cleric supposed to be brokering peace between the militants and the government – describing institutions including parliament as un-Islamic.

The evidence of spreading Talibanisation was sufficiently disturbing to kick-start Mr Zardari's government and the military into action. They launched an offensive to drive the militants from Buner. Meanwhile, 6,000 troops diverted to the Indian border have moved back to the North-west. "The national mood is changing," one Pakistani official admitted. "People got scared, which is good."

In Washington, there remains deep unease about the ability of Mr Zardari to confront extremists who may control up to 12 per cent of Pakistan, and whether the US should be pouring in more money with little accountability. The US is set to deliver $7.5bn to Islamabad during the next five years and up to $1.5bn within the next few weeks. While officials are heartened by the new offensive, Mr Obama recently described Pakistan's situation as a "grave concern" and there are said to be new anxieties over the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

"No one is optimistic. There are not a lot of good options," said Christine Fair, a Washington-based analyst. "What we need from Zardari is some real leadership; to be someone who will stand up and say we are fighting for the future of our country, rather than trying to blame the US for the problems." Mr Zardari, who regularly points out that his widow, Benazir Bhutto, was killed by militants, could respond by pointing out that US insistence on launching missile strikes against suspected militants is unpopular and counter-productive.

Faced with few alternatives, the Obama administration will probably conclude the meeting by voicing support for Mr Zardari. At the same time it has also been reaching out to his rival, Nawaz Sharif. Officials said the pair have been urged to work together, but Washington may also be developing a "Plan B".

Mr Zardari is one of two visitors to be briefed on Mr Obama's AfPak policy. The other is Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, a man whose inability to exert control outside Kabul makes Mr Zardari appear like a positive strongman. Mr Obama had hoped to bring stability to Afghanistan by exerting control through Pakistan. Instead, the current focus is simply on helping a civilian government in Pakistan survive. For once, the views of a deeply concerned Washington and a despairing Pakistani public may actually chime.

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