Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani left for Washington on a three-day visit yesterday to defend his government’s reluctance to crack down on Islamic militants blamed by US officials for soaring violence in neighboring Afghanistan.
The trip comes amid intensifying US pressure for Pakistan, a vital ally in its war on terror, to move against strongholds that Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have established in its border regions.
It will be the first such visit by Gilani since he came to power following Feb. 18 elections.
Gilani will meet US President George W. Bush at the White House tomorrow and they will have a “wide-ranging exchange of views on bilateral matters and regional and international issues of common interest,” a Foreign Ministry statement said yesterday.
Gilani’s three-month-old government is persevering with efforts to negotiate peace deals along the wild frontier and stabilize a country roiled by Islamist suicide attacks.
Force will be used only as a last resort, Gilani reiterated this past week.
“Pakistan’s national security and internal stability is paramount,” Information Minister Sherry Rehman said. “Pakistan is making its own policy for its own problems.”
Gilani’s first plunge into the center of US power begins at the deep end with separate meetings with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, all tomorrow.
His hectic, three-day schedule also includes appointments with lawmakers, academics and journalists. Officials say he may meet with the contenders in November’s presidential election, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain.
Gilani, whose government is wrestling with daunting economic problems exacerbated by skyrocketing oil prices, will also meet with members of Bush’s economic team and address business leaders.
But the sharpest questions are likely to address the growing disconnect between Islamabad and Washington over how to counter violent Islamic extremists. Al-Qaeda leaders are believed to find sanctuary in Pakistan, while US troops in eastern Afghanistan are facing a spike in cross-border attacks by Taliban insurgents.
Since taking over from an administration dominated by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the new government has sought peace pacts with the tribes of Taliban militants.
US officials have voiced support for efforts to woo moderate tribal elders and isolate hardliners.
Washington also has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for a drive to bring economic development to the border region that Pakistan hopes will dry up support for extremism. It has funneled more than US$10 billion mostly in military aid to Pakistan in the past six years.
But US civilian and military leaders — and the presidential hopefuls — frown on the government’s decision to strike ceasefires with militants while the talks are ongoing. They also fear that any agreements — especially clauses on expelling foreign militants and preventing cross-border attacks — will not be enforced.
“We understand that it’s difficult, we understand that the northwest frontier area is difficult, but militants cannot be allowed to organize there and to plan there and to engage across the border,” Rice told reporters in Australia on Friday. “So yes, more needs to be done.”
Musharraf, the former army strongman who sided with the US after the Sept. 11 attacks, launched repeated military operations against militants in Pakistan’s tribal belt.