Friday, February 27, 2009

U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan to Hold Regular Talks

Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during talks on Thursday with officials of those nations.

Quite a picture.

February 27, 2009
U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan to Hold Regular Talks

WASHINGTON — Intensifying its focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States said Thursday that it would hold regular three-way meetings with top officials from the neighboring countries, which the Obama administration sees as the main front of the battle against Islamic extremism.

The plan was announced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton after three days of meetings with high-level delegations from Afghanistan and Pakistan, which touched on sensitive issues like American airstrikes in Pakistan, and the scope of the American commitment in Afghanistan.

Officials from both Pakistan and Afghanistan expressed concern about civilian casualties from American military operations, according to people who took part in the talks. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, objected to airstrikes by Predator drones in tribal areas, part of a covert campaign against militants by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Afghan foreign minister, Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, voiced worries that the Obama administration, frustrated by escalating violence and corruption in Afghanistan, would scale back its efforts in development aid and nurturing democracy to focus on security.

Mrs. Clinton sought to reassure him that “we’re committed to the Afghan government and people,” said a spokesman, Robert A. Wood. “The Afghans wanted to get across that they’re serious about democracy.”

American officials said the exchanges, which included civilian, military and intelligence officials from the three countries, had been unusually frank and substantive, if somewhat general. The next meeting, scheduled for late April or early May, will delve into more specific issues.

Three-way meetings involving these countries are not new: former President George W. Bush held a tense dinner in 2006 for President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then the president of Pakistan, during which the two guests said little and Mr. Bush did most of the talking.

But this week’s meetings involved a much larger cross-section of military and government leaders — among them foreign ministers and the heads of the Afghan and Pakistani intelligence services.

“These were not just photo ops,” said Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Meetings in this configuration have not taken place.”

The chief of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, met with leaders in Congress this week and faced questions about whether the military would step in if the political situation in Pakistan deteriorated. General Kayani — who unlike his predecessor, Mr. Musharraf, has pledged to keep the military out of politics — said the army would not intervene, according to a Pakistani official.

On a hectic day at the State Department, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustafa, also met with a senior American diplomat — a tentative step toward what analysts said could be an opening between the United States and Syria on the Middle East peace process.

Mrs. Clinton leaves late on Saturday for her first visit to the region, against a difficult backdrop of complaints about humanitarian aid in Gaza and continued negotiations in Israel to form a government.

On another thorny issue, Mrs. Clinton dispatched a new special envoy for North Korea, Stephen W. Bosworth, to try to restart talks over the North’s nuclear program. Mr. Bosworth is to leave early next week for meetings in Russia, China, South Korea and Japan. He is not scheduled to talk with North Korean officials, but he left open the possibility of such a meeting.

A former ambassador to South Korea, Mr. Bosworth recently returned from a private visit to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, during which he said he found willingness on the part of the North Koreans to talk to Washington.

“I found the North Koreans, I thought, quite inclined toward continued dialogue with the United States,” Mr. Bosworth said to reporters. “They see the benefits to them of continued engagement.”

On her first trip last week, Mrs. Clinton jolted diplomatic circles when she spoke about a succession struggle under way in North Korea. The jockeying to succeed Kim Jong-il, she said, could undermine the six-party talks intended to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons.

Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.

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