US plans to increase pressure on Pakistan

A crisis meeting between three presidents will take place in Washington this week to co-ordinate action against the Taliban.

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Islamabad // The United States is building up pressure on Pakistan to confront Taliban militancy before a meeting in Washington this week. The crisis in Pakistan will be the focus of a meeting between the three presidents, Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, and Barack Obama, in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday. US officials have lambasted the Pakistani government over the past week for not grasping the significance of the threat facing Pakistan.

Gen David Petraeus, commander of US Central Command, told US officials that the next two weeks are critical to determining whether the Pakistani government will survive, US media reports say. Gen Petraeus was reported to have said that "we've heard it all before" from the Pakistanis and he is looking to seeing concrete action by the government to destroy the Taliban in the next two weeks before determining the United States' next course of action.

A Pentagon spokesman denied he had made the remarks. Lt Gen Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army officer and defence analyst, said Washington's strategy has two features. "Firstly, there is genuine alarm that the Taliban are gaining momentum. Secondly, this is a pressure tactic to force Pakistan into taking greater steps against militants," Gen Masood said. "I don't think that the politicians have grasped the significance of the threat." The New York Times reported yesterday that Mr Obama is reaching out to a former Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, the chief rival of Mr Zardari, in a hope to find a way to strengthen the country's government.

Quoting unnamed administration officials, the newspaper said on its website that because of his ties to Islamists, the US government had long held Mr Sharif at arm's length. But now some Obama administration officials say those ties could be useful in helping Mr Zardari's government confront the challenge from Taliban insurgents, the report said. It was not clear whether the officials backed brokering a power-sharing agreement between Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif, or whether they were envisaging a post-Zardari landscape.

In the past, Washington and London have made disastrous attempts to manipulate Pakistani politics to their own ends. Mr Zardari's party came to power after a deal was brokered between the Pakistan People's Party, then led by Mr Zardari's wife, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and the former military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf. However, Bhutto was assassinated in Dec 2007, months after her return from exile, and Mr Zardari teamed up with Mr Sharif to oust Mr Musharraf from the presidency last year.

Pakistanis have also expressed concern with the army's reticence to tackle the militants, some accusing the army of letting the problem fester to attract more US military aid. A letter was circulated last month by prominent Pakistanis calling upon politicians and the army to save the country. It expressed "anger and dismay at the abject capitulation of the state of Pakistan before the Taliban insurgents in Swat".

It criticised a peace deal and an ordinance signed last month by Mr Zardari implementing Sharia in the Swat valley last month. Last Sunday, Pakistan launched an attack on the Pakistan Taliban in parts of North West Frontier Province recently overrun by the militants. It began with an assault in Lower Dir, near the border with Afghanistan, in which the army claims to have killed 70 militants and lost 10 soldiers, and which displaced some 30,000 people.

On Tuesday the army launched a bigger offensive in the scenic Buner valley, just 100km from Islamabad. Many of the fighters had come from the neighbouring district of Swat. In return for the peace deal and the implementation of Sharia the local Taliban, led by Mullah Fazalullah, were supposed to lay down their arms. But this has not happened. Last week they occupied the office of Médecins Sans Frontières, a non-governmental organisation, in Saidu Sharif. Early last month they occupied the northern Swati town of Bahrain, and on Tuesday shot and injured one policeman there and kidnapped another.