In surprise appearance, Obama delivers tough love message to visiting Pakistani officials

In surprise appearance, Obama delivers tough love message to visiting Pakistani officials

Dozens of U.S. and Pakistani officials are meeting this week at the State Department in 13 different working groups spanning all elements of the U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue, but the real action is in a few, select side meetings, where participants tell The Cable that the Obama team is taking a markedly tougher tone with the Pakistanis than before.

One key meeting Wednesday afternoon was between National Security Advisor in-waiting Tom Donilon and what’s known as the "core" group of Pakistani officials: Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, and Ambassador Husain Haqqani.

President Barack Obama dropped in on that meeting and stayed for 50 minutes, according to an official who was there, and personally delivered the tough love message that other top administration officials have been communicating since the Pakistani delegation arrived. Obama also expressed support for Pakistan’s democracy and announced he would invite Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to the White House in the near future.

Earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped in unannounced on another meeting between Special Representative Richard Holbrooke and Kayani. She delivered the message that Washington’s patience is wearing thin with Pakistan’s ongoing reluctance to take a more aggressive stance against militant groups operating from Pakistan over the Afghan border. A similar message was delivered to Kayani in another high-level side meeting Wednesday morning at the Pentagon, hosted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, two senior government sources said.

The message being delivered to Pakistan throughout the week by the Obama team is that its effort to convince Pakistan to more aggressively combat groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba will now consist of both carrots and sticks. But this means that the U.S. administration must find a way incentivize both the Pakistani civilian and military leadership, which have differing agendas and capabilities.

"The Obama side is calculating that Pakistan’s military can deliver on subjects important to the U.S. but doesn’t want to, while the civilian leadership in Pakistan wants to, but isn’t able," said one high-level participant who spoke with The Cable in between sessions.

The carrots are clear. A State Department official confirmed to The Cable that the two sides will formally announce on Friday a new $2 billion military aid package for Pakistan, focusing mostly on items that can be used for counterterrorism. Unspecified amounts of new funding for the reconstruction effort related to the Pakistani flood disaster are also on the table. In exchange, the United States not only wants increased Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan and Baluchistan, but also increased operational flexibility for U.S. special forces operating inside Pakistan’s borders.

The sticks are less clear. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad argued in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday that the Obama administration should threaten to take down terrorist havens in Pakistan, without Islamabad’s consent if necessary. The Carnegie Endowment’s Ashley Tellis wrote that the United States should condition aid to Pakistan on increased cooperation and even consider throwing more support toward India’s role in Afghanistan, an idea the Pakistanis despise.

The timing of these op-eds and the change in the Obama administration’s tone is not being seen by many as a coincidence.

The Pakistanis believe that their extensive efforts to expand military operations in South Waziristan don’t get enough recognition in Washington. They also say privately that whatever incentives the United States is offering are not enough to compensate for the huge political and security risks that would come with a full-on assault on insurgent groups they have tacitly supported for decades.

Hanging over the whole discussion are reports that the United States is supporting and even providing escorts for the reconciliation talks in Kabul between the Afghan government, led by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and senior Taliban officials. The New York Times reported Wednesday that these talks were going on without the approval or involvement of the Pakistani government, ostensibly to prevent elements of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from moving to thwart them.

"Pakistan is still resisting [moving on groups in North Waziristan] because it still hasn’t fully finished with its ongoing operations [in South Waziristan] and also because it doesn’t know what will happen with the talks with the Taliban and would much rather not antagonize the Haqqani network at this juncture," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.

Nawaz noted that the Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan has now reached the third set of meetings, and that there is more pressure to show concrete results to validate the need for such a high-level format. "I hope there will be some clarity on what the objectives are on both sides and also some clarity on red lines so we don’t have to relive this movie again and again," he said.

Nawaz also predicted that another point of contention will permeate the chatter in the hallways between Pakistani and American interlocutors — Pakistan’s desire to have Obama visit sometime soon.

"The big underlying issue that won’t be on the agenda but will probably be discussed is President Obama’s upcoming visit to India and that he won’t be coming to Pakistan," he said. "It will point to the imbalance in the relationship."

In a read out, the White House said that Obama has committed to visit Pakistan some time in 2011.

Qureshi, Holbrooke, and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah will talk about all these issues at a joint Brookings/ Asia Society event Wednesday evening.