By PETER SPIEGEL and JAY SOLOMON
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Tuesday it remains fully behind the government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, despite meetings by U.S. diplomats with his prime political rival and public criticism of his handling of the recent Taliban offensive.
Mr. Zardari and his Afghan counterpart, President Hamid Karzai, arrived in Washington Tuesday ahead of meetings with President Barack Obama on Wednesday on combating terrorist and militant groups.
The Obama administration has criticized both presidents at times for ineffectiveness, while also seeking their backing for U.S. priorities in the region. Concern over Mr. Zardari rose recently when Taliban militants advanced near Islamabad.
“We are working very hard to help the Pakistani government in its moment of need,” said a senior U.S. administration official who spoke with a small group of reporters Tuesday.
American officials have privately suggested opposition leader Nawaz Shaif could emerge as a more effective alternative to Mr. Zardari. But senior administration officials said they remain committed to Mr. Zardari and wouldn’t have invited him to the White House meetings if he lacked U.S. support.
On Capitol Hill, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, pressed lawmakers Tuesday to pass a five-year, $7.5 billion aid package for Pakistan. Lawmakers are trying to condition the aid on Islamabad meeting certain benchmarks in the fight against extremists. Mr. Holbrooke cautioned against placing too many restrictions.
“We would like to work with you and the Pakistani government to find the sweet spot” for delivering the aid, Mr. Holbrooke told the House Foreign Relations Committee.
Mr. Holbrooke said Washington needed to strengthen Pakistan’s democratic institutions and not pick political favorites. He charged that the Bush administration made a mistake by backing Pakistan’s former strongman, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, despite wide-ranging opposition to his rule.
Mr. Holbrooke and other American officials have been seeking to establish a united front among Pakistan’s civilian leaders and build bridges between Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif, a former prime minister.
The administration also has a delicate relationship with Afghanistan’s Mr. Karzai, who on Tuesday warned the new U.S. military push will only work if more attention is paid to protecting the lives of Afghan civilians.
Bombing runs by the U.S.-led coalition forces killed dozens of civilians taking shelter from a battle between Taliban militants and Afghan and international forces, two Afghan officials told the Associated Press Tuesday. The U.S. said it is investigating the reports of civilian casualties.
In an address to the Brookings Institution in Washington, Mr. Karzai said trust in American efforts in Afghanistan has been frayed and the U.S. should be more sensitive to the needs of Afghans to “prove we are better than the guys we are fighting against.”
Mr. Karzai has come under attack in recent days for his decision this week to choose Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a former warlord who has been accused by Human Rights Watch of human-rights abuses, as his vice presidential running mate.
Mr. Karzai said Mr. Fahim, a former mujahedeen fighter against the Soviets and later a vice president and defense minister, would unite the country. The Karzai government has been criticized for shunning the mujahedeen for more highly educated technocrats in top offices.
“He will be a vice president that will be able to go to any part of the country and deliver,” Mr. Karzai said. “We need a man who we can rely on in hard times.”
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