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Anti-terror strategy wins broad support

| Sunday, March 29, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Obama's plan to alter U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is receiving mostly positive reviews here.

Both of those nations are beset by renewed attacks from al-Qaida, Taliban and other Islamist extremists -- with U.S. forces and their allies in the region often targeted, too.

On Friday, Obama described the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan as "increasingly perilous" and "an international security challenge of the highest order."

He pledged more troops, civilian trainers, and military and civilian aid to both countries to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" an enemy that, he said, is equally a threat to Americans, Afghans and Pakistanis.

In a parliamentary speech Saturday, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari welcomed Obama's offer of $1.5 billion in additional civilian aid.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said yesterday that he was in "full agreement" with Obama's strategy for Afghanistan, saying it was "exactly what the Afghan people were hoping for" and vowing to "work very closely" with the United States to implement the plan.

Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, called Obama's plan "a promising start." The crisis group, based in Brussels, provides advice and analysis in troubled countries around the world.

Ahmed praised the new U.S. strategy's emphasis on helping "legitimate" institutions "to deliver basic services to the Pakistani people." She predicted it "will help change the U.S. image in Pakistan for the positive."

This nuclear-armed nation of 170 million is on the front line of the war on terror. It experiences near-daily terrorist attacks, and its military is fighting al-Qaida, Taliban and other militants in a lawless tribal area along the Afghan border.

It remains a key U.S. ally, despite U.S. concern that some Pakistani military and intelligence elements support the extremists.

Underscoring the threat, militants attacked a truck terminal in the frontier city of Peshawar on Friday, destroying containers bound for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Hours earlier, a bomb killed more than 70 people at a mosque in the nearby Khyber Agency.

In his speech to Pakistani parliamentarians, Zardari declared that the country cannot remain a base for terrorists and pledged to "deal firmly with those who challenge the government's writ."

Yet he said the extremists cannot be defeated by the military alone, and he endorsed President Obama's call for $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to develop schools, roads, hospitals and other civilian services in Pakistan.

Standing beside a photo of his assassinated wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Zardari offered to reconcile with political foe Nawaz Sharif to end the political upheaval threatening the country's first civilian government after nine years of military rule.

Many U.S. officials say that political turmoil is a distraction from the battle with militants.

"We are fighting militancy and extremism for our own sake," Zardari declared, as parliamentarians tapped their hands on their desktops in approval. "We will continue to do so for the sake of our children."

Farahnaz Ispahani, Zardari's spokeswoman, told the Tribune-Review that he and Prime Minister Yousaf Reza Gilani believe the new U.S. strategy "will further cement" U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Pakistani newspapers reprinted parts of Obama's speech on their front pages, and Pakistani television aired discussions of it. Some articles and editorials, however, questioned why U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani militants in the tribal border belt were not mentioned.

Those strikes have provoked a loud outcry here, with many analysts and government officials contending that they alienate Pakistanis. U.S. officials counter that the attacks have killed nearly 100 terrorist leaders; some say privately that the attacks rely on intelligence quietly provided by the Pakistanis.

The International Crisis Group's Ahmed said the new U.S. strategy focuses on stabilizing Pakistan's tribal region to eliminate al-Qaida and its jihadi affiliates, even though those groups "are in the Pakistan heartland, not just in the tribal belt."

She welcomed its emphasis on Afghan government and economic development as well as military security. Yet she worried that any reconciliation with Taliban insurgents will be viewed by them "as a demonstration of weakness."

"When the militants have the upper hand, they have no interest in negotiating," she said. "Why at this point in time make it an integral part of a review process?"

The Awami National Party (ANP), a liberal Pashtun party governing Pakistan's increasingly violent North West Frontier Province, welcomed Obama's speech, particularly its planned economic zones to create jobs in poverty-stricken areas.

But the extreme Jamaat-e-Islami party dismissed the Obama strategy as a continuation of President Bush's policies. Its deputy secretary-general, Liaqat Bloch, told one newspaper here that the U.S. "do-more-and-kill-more" policy will create more upheaval.

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