US President Barack Obama meets with his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts, Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari, for final talks Thursday, a day after the three leaders announced they were united in their fight against Islamic extremists.
AFP - Barack Obama has invested his young presidency's political capital in battling Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- but experts also see him keeping a greater distance from the troubled countries' leaders.
Obama, in perhaps his most ambitious White House summit so far, met Wednesday with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai and hailed "unprecedented cooperation" to fight Islamic extremists.
"Let me be clear: The United States has made a lasting commitment to defeat Al-Qaeda, but also to support the democratically elected sovereign governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan," Obama said, flanked by the two leaders.
"That commitment will not waiver. And that support will be sustained," Obama said.
But while few doubt that Obama favors democracy in the two nations, analysts believe he is also seeking to depersonalize his relationship with the two leaders.
It marks a break from the deeply personal politics of his predecessor George W. Bush, who was closely identified both with Karzai and Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
"The US reputation suffered from what seemed to be an overpersonalization and reliance on Musharraf, despite the fact that he had undermined Pakistan's democratic institutions," said Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank.
"I think so far the Obama administration has tried to keep a healthy distance between itself and both the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan," she said.
Musharraf quit last year under threat of impeachment, paving the way for Zardari's civilian but weak government.
Karzai -- first installed after a US-led military operation following the September 11, 2001 attacks -- is considered the front-runner in August elections, in which he has picked a controversial warlord accused of human rights abuses as a running mate.
The Washington Post said Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to the region, has privately voiced hope that Karzai faces a challenge.
The newspaper said that Vice President Joe Biden, then a senator, stormed out of a dinner last year with Karzai, furious by what Biden saw as his denial of corruption within his ranks.
The report said Biden later told Karzai he would see Obama far less often than he saw Bush, who frequently spoke to the Afghan leader by videoconference.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month warned that Pakistan was "abdicating" to the Taliban by allowing extremists to impose Islamic law in parts of the country.
Amid criticism that US statements were further weakening Zardari, Clinton on Wednesday hailed Zardari's actions as Pakistan wages an offensive in the insurgency-ridden Swat Valley.
Holbrooke has denied media reports that he has secretly reached out to Zardari's arch-rival Nawaz Sharif after mediating to end a political crisis between the two.
"One of the challenges in Pakistan is that there is a long history of the US having sort of a chosen instrument," said Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"So you find the press in both countries and political observers, particularly in Pakistan, looking around trying to figure out who is Washington's guy," she said.
"What we ought to be doing is slightly de-emphasizing the personal aspect of this. The US needs to go to some length to show the world and the people of Pakistan that we want a relationship with the country."
Public opinion in the two nations is already inflamed by civilian deaths. Obama pledged to be more careful after Afghan police said US-led air strikes against insurgents had killed 100 people, most of them civilians.
Kamran Bokhari, a senior analyst at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, said that Sharif, who is closer to Islamists than Zardari, also saw the benefits of keeping a distance from the United States.
"Sharif is smart -- he realizes that he has to reach an understanding with the Americans, but he also understands not to be seen as allied too closely with the US, which was one of the biggest reasons Musharraf had to leave office," Bokhari said.
Date created : 2009-05-07