As Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, arrived in Washington for meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama, White House officials were warning repeatedly of "Pakistan's existential" crisis -- a stark new catchphrase showing the depth of concern, at the highest levels, about the perilous situation in South Asia.
This afternoon, four top administration officials briefed the press ahead of this week's bi- and trilateral meetings, insisting they be identified only as "senior administration officials."
The key message from the White House is that the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan face a common, and mortal threat in the Taliban and allied extremists now battling the Pakistani Army on its sovereign territory. The officials say they think the Pakistani government recognizes the "existential" threat it faces. But they also suggested they would be watching over the next few days to see whether the Zardari government had sufficient will and the wherewithal to battle the problem.
The briefers refused to comment, however, on whether they had seen signs that Pakistan was shifting its security posture by, for instance, redeploying troops from its border with India towards its border with Afghanistan to devote to the fight against militants.
They stressed that the Pakistani state is emphatic that it will not allow foreign troops, saying that this could be interpreted as a positive sign that Pakistan wants to take care of the problem on its own. "Pakistan is determined to fight its own war," another senior administration official said.
During testimony earlier in the day before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke said that until yesterday, the momentum in the war between Pakistani troops and Taliban forces was moving in favor of the Taliban. But Holbrooke noted that Pakistan's Army had sent more troops into Swat Valley, saying the pendulum might be starting to swing the other way. "We do not think Pakistan is a failed state," Holbrooke told the committee.
This week's meetings are the second set of trilaterals the Obama administration has held with Pakistani and Afghan leaders, the previous time being several weeks ago when it was conducting its policy review, at the foreign minister level. This one is at the presidential level; Obama will meet with both presidents separately and then all together tomorrow.
The officials said there would be two more trilateral meetings this year -- the next one in the fall after Afghanistan's August elections, and another about 12 weeks later. With Zardari facing a tough fight with the Taliban, and Karzai up for elections in August, it's not clear whether either president would still be representing his country by then. (One official emphasized that the Obama administration supports both men as the democratically elected leaders of their countries, noting, however, that the United States had no preference for any particular Afghan presidential candidate.)
One senior administration official acknowledged the U.S. had held meetings with former Pakistani prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, as well as his brother, a provincial leader in Punjab. Holbrooke said in his Hill testimony Tuesday that Pakistan's powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, had not joined Zardari's delegation to Washington, saying Kiyani was back in Pakistan, "where he should be."
A host of Obama administration officials will be involved in talks with their Afghan and Pakistani counterparts: Attorney General Eric Holder, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who is practically "commuting" between Washington and Pakistan, as Holbrooke put it at the Hill hearing, is traveling, as is Defense Secretary Robert Gates), Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew, USAID's Acting Administrator Alonzo Fulgham, CIA Director Leon Panetta, Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus, Holbrooke, and national security advisor Gen. Jim Jones. Vice President Joseph Biden will host the presidents at a dinner tomorrow night, and the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Richard Lugar, will host a lunch for them with the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the next day.
Agriculture Secretary Vilsack's breakout meeting with his South Asian counterparts would also be the first meeting ever of the Afghan and Pakistani agriculture ministers, one senior administration official emphasized, noting that agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the countries' economies. Similarly, it will be the first meeting of the Afghan and Pakistani finance and interior ministers when they meet in breakout sessions Wednesday with Lew and Holder respectively, he said. "Our goal is to get the two countries to work more closely," he said. "They can't succeed without each other."