WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama Wednesday pledged a "lasting commitment" by the U.S. to the democratic governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan after an unusual three-way meeting that ended with promises but no concrete agreements.
Flanked by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama told reporters that both men "fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat we face" from Islamic extremists. He didn't invite either visitor to speak, however, and both appeared ill at ease.
Only 24 hours earlier, special envoy Richard Holbrooke told Congress that the U.S. must maintain "heavy pressure" on Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban extremists who've taken over swaths of the country's northwest.
U.S. officials and South Asian analysts said it isn't clear that Pakistan is willing to wage a long-term battle against Islamist militants, some of whom belong to groups that the country's intelligence services have funded in a long-running battle with India over the disputed area of Kashmir.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"We've heard all this before," a U.S. defense official said of Zardari's pledge to step up cooperation with the U.S. and Afghanistan. The official requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Pakistan's armed forces this week launched a counteroffensive in the Swat Valley, but so far the lightly armed frontier corps has done most of the fighting against the Taliban. While some Pakistani army armor and artillery elements are involved in the offensive, there's no evidence of a major army mobilization, the defense official said.
Pakistani artillery and air strikes have caused widespread damage and civilian casualties and sent tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of residents fleeing, eyewitnesses told McClatchy.
Helicopter gunships and mortars pounded Taliban positions Wednesday in Swat's main city, Mingora. In the neighboring Buner district, the army reported that it had killed 27 militants.
"Many civilians are dead, not a Taliban among them," said Sahibzada, a teacher who goes by one name and mans a private relief station just south of Buner. "People are coming out like a flood today."
Obama and his aides said they'd won at least general pledges from Zardari and Karzai to work together to fight Islamist militants, but they acknowledged that the effort remains embryonic.
At a morning session with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Karzai at the State Department, Zardari pledged that Pakistan would confront the extremists.
"Pakistan carries a huge burden confronting al Qaida and Taliban together. But we are up to the challenge," said Zardari, whose fragile civilian government has been in office for eight months.
"I'm very optimistic that this process is making a difference," Clinton told reporters. "I'm realistic enough to know that two meetings does not necessarily turn around the many difficult challenges that confront these two countries and us."
Obama warned, "The road ahead will be difficult. There will be more violence, and there will be setbacks."
Obama has ordered more than 20,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, and he's pressing Karzai to battle corruption, cooperate with Pakistan, enact judicial reform and hold fair elections later this year.
However, Afghanistan and Pakistan are deeply skeptical of U.S. intentions because of the indifference of successive U.S. administrations prior to the 9/11 attacks and critical of U.S. military actions that have claimed civilian lives.
In Afghanistan, there were reports Wednesday that U.S. airstrikes had killed as many as 100 civilians Sunday in western Farah province, potentially inflaming popular sentiment there. Obama opened a one-on-one meeting with Karzai by expressing condolence for the loss, said the White House national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James Jones.
There were conflicting reports about the incident, however. U.S. military officials told McClatchy that according to witnesses, the Taliban killed at least some of the civilians and drove their corpses around in trucks in a ploy to discredit American forces.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David McKiernan, told reporters that the military is investigating and will release the results in the next few days.
Jones described the three-way meeting among Obama, Karzai and Zardari as "very warm," and said it was "obvious that the two presidents (Karzai and Zardari) got along well."
Jones, however, said that the three leaders didn't get into operational military matters. Karzai didn't ask Obama to suspend U.S. airstrikes while the deaths in Farah are being investigated, nor did Zardari raise Pakistan's concerns about U.S. Predator drone strikes in his country's tribal regions, Jones said.
Such matters could come up in additional meetings, which will continue at a lower level Thursday, he said.
(Special correspondent Saeed Shah in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Jonathan S. Landay and Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY