updated 5/5/2009 7:15:04 PM ET 2009-05-05T23:15:04

Pakistan is not a failed state but its government is facing tremendous challenges and needs U.S. help to counter Taliban advances, the Obama administration's point man for the region said Tuesday.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told a congressional committee that Pakistan's survival as a moderate, democratic state is critical to U.S. national security.

"Our most vital national security interests are at stake," Holbrooke told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said that although Pakistan "is a state under enormous social, political and economic pressures," it "is not a failed state."

Holbrooke was testifying ahead of meetings this week between President Barack Obama and the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan during which the administration will press the Pakistanis on combating extremists.

Congress considers aid
Congress is considering a major boost in nonmilitary assistance to Pakistan — $1.5 billion per year over five years — and Holbrooke said success there is key to America's escalating military operation in Afghanistan.

"We need to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies," he said. "We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan's support and involvement."

Speaking separately at a Washington think tank, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a similar point. He said the key to the Taliban's resurgence in recent years is its havens across the border in Pakistan.

"The return of the Taliban is because we did not address the question of sanctuaries in time," Karzai said during a question-and-answer session with an audience of policy experts at the Brookings Institution.

Video: Thousands flee Pakistan's northwest Holbrooke played down suggestions that the administration is backing away from Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in favor of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. He praised Zardari for taking politically difficult stands by trying to work with Washington.

"We have not distanced ourselves from President Zardari," he said. "We have the highest strategic interests in supporting this government."

He compared U.S. relations with Sharif to contacts that American officials have with opposition leaders in other countries.

Several lawmakers questioned Holbrooke on Zardari's ability to control his country, with Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., saying "Pakistan's pants are on fire." Holbrooke urged Ackerman and others to speak with Zardari about their concerns while he is in Washington.

Concern about nuclear arsenal
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will hold two sets of meetings on Wednesday with Zardari and Karzai. Holbrooke said the talks, which will continue at a lower level on Thursday, will be historically important.

Clinton will meet with Zardari and Karzai and their delegations separately at the State Department before bringing them together there. Later, at the White House, Obama will follow the same pattern in talks with the two leaders, according to Holbrooke.

In the meetings, the administration will be seeking assurances that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is safe and that its military intends to face down Taliban and al-Qaida extremists in coordination with Afghanistan and the United States.

Holbrooke declined to address the nuclear issue in open testimony, but other officials have said that while they believe Pakistan's nuclear weapons are secure for the moment, there is acute concern that militants might try to seize one or several of them.

Those anxieties have heightened amid the Taliban's recent advances and Americans worry about the commitment from Pakistan's government and military in battling the extremists, the officials said.

U.S. officials have also expressed concern that Pakistan's military and civilian leaders still regard traditional rival India as the greatest threat to their country and do not appreciate the dangers of rising Taliban and al-Qaida influence in their backyard.

"There is a real and present danger to Pakistan's survival but it comes from inside and not outside the country," Holbrooke said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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