The Obama administration reacted with increasing alarm yesterday to ongoing Taliban advances in Pakistan, warning the Pakistani government that failure to take action against the extremists could endanger its partnership with the United States as well as American strategy in neighboring Afghanistan.
"The news over the past several days is very disturbing," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, adding that the administration "is extremely concerned" and that the issue was taking "a lot" of President Obama's time.
Obama held a White House meeting on the subject with Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative to the region, officials said, and also brought it up in a separate session with congressional leaders. Holbrooke spoke by telephone to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and with Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates publicly expressed frustration with reports that Taliban forces had moved eastward into two new districts of the country this week with no apparent resistance from government forces, bringing them within 60 miles of the Pakistani capital.
While "some" Pakistani leaders recognize the threat, Gates told reporters during a visit to Camp Lejeune, N.C., "it is important that they not only recognize it, but take the appropriate actions to deal with it." Pakistani stability is central to U.S. efforts in neighboring Afghanistan, Gates said, "and it is also central to our future partnership with the government in Islamabad."
During a second day of congressional testimony, Clinton tried to calm anxious lawmakers while acknowledging she shares their worries. "We have made these concerns abundantly clear" to Pakistan's civilian and military leadership, she said.
For the past several months, Zardari's government has been enmeshed in other domestic political turmoil; his popularity has dropped to the low double digits while ratings for his principal political opponent, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, rose to 83 percent in recent polls. The administration has urged the resolution of those problems so that more attention can be paid to the rising extremist threat.
It has called on Zardari to come up with his own strategic plan, with integrated economic and military components, to match Obama's, and is pressing the Pakistani military to refocus the bulk of its attention away from the eastern border with India, its traditional adversary, toward the Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the west.
But there is little direct action the administration can take beyond exhorting the Pakistanis and redoubling efforts to quickly implement key elements of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy Obama announced late last month.
Holbrooke and Jacob J. "Jack" Lew, deputy secretary of state for management and resources, spent much of yesterday meeting with members of Congress to build support for the plan to quickly and significantly increase development and military assistance to Pakistan, and to reassure them the administration is on top of the fast-moving situation.
The president is also "pressing" his national security team, "making sure we're updating our policy and strategy to reflect the changing situation," one senior administration official said.
The administration is recalibrating the schedule drawn up for a May 6 and 7 meeting here among Obama and the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The trilateral summit, Holbrooke said yesterday, "was conceived in an atmosphere that has now changed significantly, and the focus is increasingly on Pakistan."
Another administration official acknowledged some concern over Zardari's planned week-long absence from home for his visit here, given Pakistan's history of military coups and government overthrows while the head of state was outside the country.
"We inquired twice" whether Zardari was concerned about leaving Pakistan, this official said. "Both times we were told no." Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani and the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, will remain in Pakistan during Zardari's trip, the official said.
The Pakistan government has downplayed U.S. concerns that the situation is spinning out of control. "In any counterinsurgency effort, there are changing ground realities," said Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani. "The important thing is the overall picture, and in Pakistan, as a whole, the government remains firmly in control and Pakistan continues to have the military capability of dealing with the threat."
When Zardari arrives in Washington early next month, Haqqani said, "he will share Pakistan's national counterterrorism strategy and will also list the areas where Pakistan looks forward to American support and cooperation in implementing that strategy." Included in the expected support is U.S. provision of helicopters, night-combat equipment and communications gear with which Pakistan says it can better fight the extremists.
In a visit to Marine units preparing to depart for Afghanistan from Camp Lejeune, Gates emphasized the urgent need for congressional support for a defense budget that shifts billions in spending toward equipment designed for counterinsurgencies. He repeated his call for cuts in weapons systems as part of the Pentagon's proposed $534 billion 2010 defense budget.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.