WASHINGTON — With the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan slated to begin in July, U.S. President Barack Obama sat down with dozens of his top aides and advisers on Monday to discuss military operations in Afghanistan as American tensions run high with Pakistan, the war-torn country’s neighbour.
Obama, fresh off participating in a White House Easter egg hunt with dozens of schoolchildren, then participated in a much grimmer gathering — a monthly discussion about Afghanistan and Pakistan amid growing U.S. disenchantment with Pakistani officials over their strategy to fight militants on the volatile Pakistan-Afghan border.
Jay Carney, White House press secretary, played down any suggestions the meeting was anything other than routine, emphasizing it was not “decisional.”
“This is one of the regular . . . monthly meetings run by the president on Afghanistan and Pakistan with the usual principals involved in that meeting,” he told the daily White House press briefing.
But there was certainly no shortage of fodder for this month’s gathering.
A new Washington Post-ABC news poll released Monday suggested more Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the conflict than support it, by 49 to 44 per cent respectively.
The poll comes with the arrival of spring in Afghanistan and what military analysts predict will be a deadly “fighting season.” Taliban forces are expected to escalate activities in an attempt to reclaim ground lost to U.S. forces over the past year.
Obama, meantime, has to decide how many troops to withdraw this summer in order to keep his promise to start pulling out U.S. soldiers in July. His administration has since largely moved away from that time frame, signalling 2014 is the year that most U.S. troops will be withdrawn.
Obama officials, in fact, have recently begun talks with Afghanistan designed to soothe the Karzai government’s fears about being abandoned by the West come 2014. They are reportedly discussing the long-term stationing of some U.S. troops in Afghanistan who would train Afghan security forces and help fight terrorism for years to come.
Monday’s meeting was also held just two days after Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief, insisted that the “backbone” of militants along the border had been broken, despite U.S. concerns to the contrary.
In a report earlier this month, the White House criticized Pakistan’s attempts to defeat the Taliban in border regions.
Those criticisms were dismissed by Pakistani officials.
Pakistan, in fact, has been just as miffed at the U.S. in recent weeks, reportedly pondering pressing the United Nations Security Council to put diplomatic pressure on Washington to halt drone strikes inside the tribal regions that border Afghanistan.
“We have decided it in principle,” an unnamed Pakistan official told the country’s The Express Tribune on Monday. “We will soon be preparing our case for approaching the UN on these attacks.”
Pakistan reportedly believes it has a case since the Security Council resolution in 2001 authorizing attacks on Afghanistan did not greenlight any similar military operations against Pakistan.
The drone strikes have sparked widespread anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. The head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, recently visited the U.S. for meetings with Leon Panetta, head of the CIA. But Pasha was rebuffed in his attempts to stop the drone strikes.
The White House has also reportedly rejected demands for information about the activities of CIA agents within Pakistan.
A new release of documents by the WikiLeaks website reveals abiding American distrust of Pasha’s agency, known as ISI. U.S. officials, the documents show, believe ISI is a terrorist group.
A secret 2007 U.S. list of “terrorist and terrorist support entities” named ISI along with dozens of other groups that included the Taliban, Hamas and Hezbollah. The list was part of a memo from Guantanamo Bay, the controversial military prison camp in Cuba where Canada’s Omar Khadr is housed.
In a visit to Islamabad last week, Mullen told Pakistani officials that ISI’s ties to Afghanistan’s al Qaida-allied Haqqani network was deeply troubling to the United States.
Pakistan has been an official U.S. ally since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, it’s received billions of dollars in American aid, and is sensitive to suggestions it’s taking money from the U.S. while turning a blind eye to anti-American militants within its own borders.