Obama takes measured approach to Afghanistan, Pakistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There was no backslapping from President Barack Obama for the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan on Wednesday, two countries that represent perhaps the United States’ most urgent foreign policy headache.

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) talks to reporters as he meets with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (L) and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington May 6, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Obama took a pragmatic, arms-length approach to dealing with both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, stressing support for their democratically elected governments but avoiding becoming wrapped up in personalities.

It is a strategy born in part from having seen that personalities had limits in President George W. Bush’s friendships with Karzai and Zardari’s predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.

Gone are the weekly videoconferences with Karzai that Bush held. And the Obama administration is not limiting its Pakistani contacts to Zardari, the widower of slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. It is also talking to opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, among others.

After their meeting at the White House on Wednesday, Obama was careful to stick to diplomatic language in his message across that both the Afghan and Pakistani presidents need to do more to confront the threat posed by the Taliban and al Qaeda.

“I’m pleased that these two men, elected leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat that we face and have reaffirmed their commitment to confronting it,” Obama said as both Karzai and Zardari stood silently at his side.

Casting a cloud over the talks were the deaths of dozens of Afghan civilians, apparently from U.S.-led airstrikes.

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Karzai was once the darling of Washington’s foreign policy establishment for daring to lead turbulent post-September 11 Afghanistan.

He is now viewed with some skepticism, including by Vice President Joe Biden, who as a senator in February 2008 walked out of a dinner with Karzai because the Afghan leader did not seem to be taking U.S. concerns about corruption seriously.

Obama raised the issue again with Karzai, telling him he wanted to see “concrete results” on stamping out corruption in Afghanistan, according to U.S. national security adviser, Jim Jones.

Washington has other concerns as well. Many of the problems Karzai inherited when he took power remain unsolved and he has been unable to extend his government’s reach beyond the capital, Kabul.

“Embracing Karzai like he was the Thomas Jefferson of Afghanistan and having weekly conversations with him was no longer a feasible approach,” said an Obama administration official.

Zardari is viewed as having reacted too slowly to the real internal threat in nuclear-armed Pakistan -- the Taliban -- and instead has engaged in the usual Pakistani fixation on its arch rival, India.

“There’s a recognition that Pakistan has traveled a great distance and Zardari deserves credit,” said the American official. “But there is also a great deal of concern about the weakness of the government, the unpopularity of the government.”

All this is happening as the United States is sending more troops to Afghanistan, a move ordered by Obama as part of his campaign pledge to bolster the fight in the country where the September 11 plot was born.

“This is in a sense throwing the dice and hoping a surge will make things easier in Afghanistan. But it’s hard to see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel, particularly with the border with Pakistan,” said Dennis Kux, a former U.S. diplomat who has traveled extensively to the region.

Obama has little choice but to deal with Karzai for the time being. Elections are scheduled in Afghanistan in August and no credible opponent has emerged.

Editing by Chris Wilson