Barack Obama speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room in Washington, DC. Alongside Obama are: Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. – AFP Photo

WASHINGTON: Although conceding that Pakistan’s cooperation has allowed them to place militants in a “meat in the sandwich” situation, US President Barack Obama and his senior aides have once again urged Islamabad to do still more.

“Progress has not come fast enough, so we will continue to insist to Pakistani leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders must be dealt with,” Mr Obama said at the White House on Thursday while launching his first review of the US strategy for Afghanistan.

Adopting a classic carrot-and-stick combination, Mr Obama also assured Islamabad that Washington would continue to support the economic and political development that’s critical to Pakistan’s future.

“As part of our strategic dialogue with Pakistan, we will work to deepen trust and cooperation. We’ll speed up our investment in civilian institutions and projects that improve the lives of Pakistanis.”

Mr Obama was flanked by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates as he assured the American public that the United States could still win the Afghan war and that he would go ahead with his plan to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July next year.

Like his boss, Secretary Gates also addressed the US dilemma in dealing with Pakistan, i.e. continuing to urge Pakistanis to do more without taking the situation to a breaking point.

He disagreed with a journalist who alleged that terrorists based in Fata had a free pass to cross into Afghanistan.

“Well, first of all, they don’t have free pass at this point. There are a lot of kinetic actions taking place along that border in terms of people coming across,” he said.

The Pakistanis, he noted, had not only deployed 140,000 troops in that region, but were also coordinating their military operations with the US and Afghan forces.

“So the Pakistanis come in behind the insurgents from the Pakistani side, and coordinating with us and the Afghans, we’re on the other side,” Mr Gates said.

“And so they’re the meat in the sandwich. And we expect to see more of that, and the cooperation is increasing between the Afghans and the Pakistanis,” he added.

Secretary Clinton acknowledged that over the past two years, the Pakistanis had come a long way, from signing a peace deal with the Taliban to recognising that militants presented “a mortal threat to Pakistan’s long-term sovereignty and authority.”

The remarks show that contrary to media reports, the Obama administration had not been singling out Pakistan as the culprit while reviewing its war strategy.

Instead, it seemed willing to continue its present policy of combining its economic and military assistance to Pakistan with constant reminders that Islamabad needed to do more to root out terrorist safe havens from Fata.

“We’ll intensify our efforts to encourage closer cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said President Obama while addressing the distrust between Islamabad and Kabul which has slowed progress in the war against terrorists.

PAKISTAN VISIT Mr Obama also said he had consulted both Presidents Zardari and Karzai while reviewing his war strategy and spoke of his personal interest in building a better relationship with Pakistan.

“And next year, I look forward to an exchange of visits, including my visit to Pakistan, because the United States is committed to an enduring partnership that helps deliver improved security, development and justice for the Pakistani people,” he said.

Further emphasising Pakistans importance in the war, he noted that it’s the tribal regions along the Afghan-Pakistan border from which terrorists had launched attacks against the US and its allies.

“And if an even wider insurgency were to engulf Afghanistan, that would give Al Qaeda even more space to plan these attacks,” he warned.

President Obama noted that the civilian effort to promote effective governance and development, and regional cooperation, especially with Pakistan, was important “because our strategy has to succeed on both sides of the border.”

He acknowledged that “today al Qaeda’s senior leadership in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan is under more pressure than at any point since they fled Afghanistan nine years ago.”

“Senior leaders have been killed. It’s harder for them to recruit. It’s harder for them to travel. It’s harder for them to train. It’s harder for them to plot and launch attacks. In short, Al Qaeda is hunkered down,” he added.

The US, he said, would continue to focus on its relationship with Pakistan. “Increasingly, the Pakistan government recognises that terrorist networks in its border regions are a threat to all our countries, especially Pakistan,” he said.

“We’ve welcomed major Pakistani offensives in the tribal regions. We will continue to help strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to root out terrorists.”

Apparently, not satisfied with the US administration’s reluctance to attack Pakistan for its failures in Afghanistan, an Indian journalist asked American leaders to force Islamabad to do more.

“It’s hard to overstate the impact of the floods in Pakistan and the role and the degree to which the military assets were drawn off the border to be able to deal with the flooding,” said Mr Gates while explaining why the US believed Pakistan was unable to expand its military operations at this stage.

“I think that like in many of the things that we’ve dealt with Pakistan, things will move in the right direction,” he added.

“It will probably take longer than we would like, but they have made clear their intentions.”

The US, he added, had a strong relationship with Pakistan and “the more confident that they are that we have a long- term relationship in mind with Pakistan, the more willing they’re going to be to take actions that serve both our interests.”

Secretary Clinton noted that in Pakistan, the US had “moved beyond a purely transactional relationship dominated by military cooperation” to engaging both the civilian and military sides.

“Through the strategic dialogue that we established last year, Pakistan and the United States have begun a long-term commitment to work together not just on security but on energy, agriculture, education, health and other areas that directly affect the daily lives of the Pakistani people,” she said.

“There will continue to be obstacles and setbacks, but our conclusion is that our partnership is slowly but steadily improving, we have greater cooperation and understanding, and that is yielding tangible results on the ground,” she concluded.