Zardari in Washington: Hard Questions for Pakistan's Leader

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UPI Photo / Landov

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari meets with the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington on May 5

Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari, arrives at the White House on Wednesday as one of his country's walking wounded. Amid rising violence and turmoil, his popularity among his own people has hit rock bottom; political allies and rivals alike smell blood in the water; the country's military barely pretends to follow his instructions; the Taliban controls large swaths of his country's territory; and militant groups want his head — literally. So, can Pakistan's President expect some TLC in Washington? From the White House, perhaps, but Capitol Hill has little love left for Zardari.

Ahead of Wednesday's trilateral summit between the Pakistani leader, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Barack Obama, U.S. officials were doing their best to soothe congressional skepticism over sending Pakistan's military and political authorities desperately needed infusions of cash. Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that Zardari has the Administration's total backing. "He should be treated as the leader of a country who vitally needs our support and whose success is vitally related to American interests," Holbrooke said. Asked whether the Obama Administration had any contingency plans for the possible collapse of the Zardari government, Holbrooke said even discussing such a plan would "undercut his legitimacy." (See pictures of the Taliban's advance into Buner.)

Senior Administration officials briefing journalists on condition of anonymity at the White House hastened to add that, despite recent U.S. overtures to Zardari's chief political rival, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, there was no question of changing horses midstream. "We are not abandoning or ... distancing ourselves from Zardari," an official said.

On Capitol Hill, however, legislators from both parties expressed reluctance to unconditionally bail out Zardari's government, expressing sharp criticism of his handling of the fight against extremism in his country and skepticism over the Obama Administration's claims that Islamabad if finally getting serious about that fight. At the Holbrooke hearing, Democratic Representative Gary Ackerman of New York said, "Pakistan's pants are on fire, but ... they don't recognize the risk [they are] in."

Congress is weighing several bills to increase aid to the Pakistani government and step up assistance to the Pakistani military in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But many on the Hill worry that the money will be misspent and want to attach strict conditions and benchmarks to the aid, some of which any Pakistani government might find difficult to meet.

The Administration worries that stringent conditions demanded by the House (the Senate is somewhat more accommodating) will be interpreted in Pakistan as a sign that the U.S. is pulling away from its old ally, and could weaken the government. But lawmakers seemed unimpressed by Holbrooke's appeals. Committee chairman Democrat Howard Berman of California said the House is "simply asking the Pakistanis to keep the commitments they have already made to fight the terrorists who threaten our national security and theirs, and that they make some progress doing so, with progress defined very broadly." If that is unreasonable, Berman asked, "then what does that tell us about our relationship with Pakistan?"

Zardari on Tuesday met privately with some members of the committee and tried to reassure them that he is on top of things in Islamabad and a worthy recipient of further U.S. largesse. On Wednesday and Thursday, he will take that message to the White House. Zardari will meet twice with Obama, in a one-on-one session and a tripartite meeting with Karzai.

The senior Administration officials said Obama would urge both men to set aside the long history of difficult relations between their countries and cooperate in areas ranging from agriculture and trade to border policing and counterterrorism. But both men remain locked in complex political dynamics at home that militate against doing exactly what Washington asks of them. Which is why, in the weeks ahead, Administration officials may have to spend as much time cajoling Congress as they spend persuading the Pakistanis to do more.