Presidents Zardari and Karzai’s US visit ends – but doubts remain

Author: By David Usborne in Washington

Suspicions still run deep about the resolve of Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, who has been criticised in the US for failing to react forcefully to Taliban encroachments on Pakistani territory. Similar concerns linger about the authority beyond Kabul of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Republicans and some Democrats are threatening to rebel against plans to increase aid to Pakistan in particular unless conditions are attached on what steps the government in Islamabad should take to demonstrate its seriousness in combating the growing insurgency there. At hearings on Tuesday, Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to both countries, continued to resist attaching any such conditions.

Before a lunch hosted by Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the foreign relations committee, White House officials insisted that President Barack Obama was committed to backing both men over the long term, including President Zardari whose standing in Washington may be helped by the start yesterday of bombing raids against the Taliban in Swat by the Pakistani military.

“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,” the National Security Advisor, General Jim Jones, said yesterday. “Miracles will not happen, so this won?t happen quickly. But with a common focus, we can make strides hopefully in the near future.”

The talks in Washington follow on from the unveiling by Mr Obama at the end of his March of a new strategy that yokes both countries together as sharing similar problems with insurgencies as well as a common and highly porous border.

While the military effort is being stepped up, notably with the imminent deployment of an additional 21,000 US troops to Afghanistan, US officials also this week have been detailing plans to increase economic and development assistance to the region in areas ranging from transport to agriculture.

Pakistan already receives about $2 billion in military aid from the US annually, but under the new plan it also expects to receive an additional $1.5bn a year in civilian support. It is this aid, however, that members of Congress want to see conditioned so as not to be a “blank cheque.”

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