Obama Applauds Afghan and Pakistan Cooperation; Sees Difficulty Ahead
"The road ahead will be difficult," Obama said Wednesday after a series of meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari that yielded few announced new commitments. "There will be more violence, and there will be setbacks."
Obama added, "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."
Obama's national security adviser, Gen. Jim Jones, told reporters later that Obama was clear in his support for Zardari, who has come under heavy U.S. criticism for doing too little to combat a Taliban insurgency. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for example, told Congress last week that Pakistan was "abdicating" to the Taliban extremists.
"The president pledged to do whatever we could, to do what we can as quickly as possible to help the Pakistani government, and said this type of aid would not just be restricted to military," Jones said. "Miracles will not happen, so this won't happen quickly. But with a common focus, we can make strides hopefully in the near future."
Wednesday's meetings, which began at the State Department and then moved to the White House, had the added complication of reports that U.S. airstrikes on Sunday had killed dozens of civilians in western Afghanistan. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan suggested that the Taliban might be to blame, but Obama and Clinton felt compelled to respond sympathetically.
Obama expressed U.S. regret, promising to "make every effort" to avoid further tragedies as allied forces press the fight against a rising Taliban insurgency.
Obama also used the occasion to laud "unprecedented cooperation" between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which share a long, poorly demarcated and porous border.
"Along the border, where insurgents often move freely, we must work together with a renewed sense of partnership to share intelligence and to coordinate our efforts to isolate, target and take out our common enemy," Obama said in a statement delivered at the White House with Karzai and Zardari at his side.
Obama took no questions from reporters and neither of the other leaders spoke. Obama met separately with Karzai and Zardari, followed by a three-way session.
The latest report of Afghan civilian casualties came at an especially awkward time for the administration, which is stepping up its military campaign inside Afghanistan while also seeking to emphasize the importance of nonmilitary efforts to stabilize the country. The administration has pledged, for example, a major increase in civilian expertise in farming and other specialties.
Obama's strategy, unveiled in late March, already is threatened by setbacks to his goal of strengthening a shaky Pakistani government, eliminating al-Qaida and Taliban sanctuaries on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border and fighting Afghan government corruption. Claims of U.S. culpability for civilian deaths in Afghanistan are an added burden.
Jones told reporters that the president began his meeting with Karzai by addressing the reported civilian deaths Sunday. Jones said Obama commented "with great sympathy" and expressed regret for the loss of innocent life. Earlier, before her meetings with Karzai and Zardari at the State Department, Clinton said the U.S. "deeply, deeply" regrets the loss of civilian lives.
Both Obama and Clinton stopped short of accepting U.S. blame for the deaths.
Obama told Karzai that investigations "will be pursued aggressively with full intent to discover what in fact did happen, how it happened and how we can make sure that things like that do not happen again. And it was clear that President Karzai was moved by that ... and he thanked the president for starting off the meeting with that expression of condolence."
Karzai did not ask that U.S. airstrikes be suspended or reduced in intensity pending the outcome of the investigation, Jones said.
Nor did Zardari raise an equally sensitive topic on his side of the border -- the use of U.S. Predator aircraft to attack extremist targets, Jones said. Pakistanis have strongly protested those attacks, saying they have killed innocent civilians.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. forces commander said it wasn't a certainty that Sunday's deaths were a result of U.S. military action. Gen. David McKiernan said American forces came to the aid of Afghans who may have been ambushed by the Taliban. He said the Taliban beheaded three civilians, perhaps to lure police.
"We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of the civilian casualties," McKiernan said. He would not elaborate.
Karzai, whose public criticism of U.S. airstrikes has grown increasingly indignant, thanked Clinton politely for her concern.
"We appreciate that," Karzai said.
In his remarks at the White House, Obama emphasized the progress he said was achieved in the Washington meetings.
"We have advanced unprecedented cooperation," Obama declared. "We will work for the day when our nations are linked not by a common enemy but by a shared peace and prosperity."
Veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the administration's point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan and a participant in the meetings, was upbeat in brief remarks after Obama summarized the day's talks. "It was a day that exceeded our expectations," Holbrooke said. "We turned a corner" in improving coordination with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The stakes couldn't be higher, Obama said.
"We have learned time and again that our security is shared," the president said. "It is a lesson that we learned most painfully on 9/11, and it is a lesson that we will not forget."
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan, Jennifer Loven and Ben Feller contributed to this report.