June 27, 2006

Rice goes to Pakistan on anti-Taliban mission

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice was due to arrive in Islamabad later on Tuesday on a
mission to make Pakistan and Afghanistan stop their bickering
and work better together to fight the Taliban.

Rice's return to the region, just three months after
accompanying President George W. Bush there, comes at a time
when both the Afghan and Pakistani leaders are suffering from
slumps in popularity and their credibility is being questioned

Rice praised both allies for their efforts in the war on
terrorism in remarks to reporters on Tuesday while en route to
Pakistan for talks with President Pervez Musharraf, but knows
she has her work cut out.

"The piece we need to work harder on is the cooperation
that is U.S.-Afghan-Pakistani in that region," Rice said ahead
of a refueling stop in Scotland.

"We want (in Pakistan) to talk about what more we can do."

The level of violence in Afghanistan, especially in the
south, is now the worst it has been since the Taliban were
driven from power in 2001, with over 1,100 people killed since

Two years ago, Afghanistan was being held up as a U.S.
foreign policy success story following President Hamid Karzai's
election triumph in late 2004.

Now, with elections for the U.S. Senate and House of
Representatives looming, Bush is under fire from Democrats for
failing to subdue the Taliban threat.

The insurgency and general levels of violence have fueled
disenchantment among Afghans, who already feel short-changed
despite billions of dollars of aid money spent in their

Anti-U.S., anti-Karzai riots rocked Kabul earlier this
month, and prompted observers to reassess progress made in


Rice defended Karzai, dismissing a Washington Post report
that he was losing support at home and from foreign

"This is a man who is doing an extremely difficult job
well," she said.

To make matters worse, Karzai and Musharraf have been at
loggerheads over Afghan accusations that the insurgency is
being run from Pakistani territory, and Pakistan is worried by
Kabul's burgeoning friendship with its old rival, India.

The United States, which has close to 23,000 troops in
Afghanistan, has also said Taliban are coming from Pakistan.

The friction comes as the U.S.-led coalition prepares to
transfer command of southern Afghanistan to a NATO-led
peacekeepers at the end of July.

The Taliban offensive is seen as an attempt to weaken the
resolve among members of the 26-member alliance, as it raises
troop levels from 9,000 to close to 17,000.

But Pakistan can point to its own deployment of 80,000
troops on the frontier to stem cross-border movement.

There are fears in Pakistan that the military strategy
could backfire, and create more problems among tribes on the

On Monday, a pro-Taliban suicide car bomber killed at least
six paramilitary troops in North Waziristan, where Pakistani
forces have been fighting al Qaeda guerrillas and their local
allies for months.

Overt U.S. pressure on Musharraf ahead of general elections
due late next year could undermine a leader who is still
struggling to establish his democratic credentials after coming
to power in a military coup almost seven years ago.

Bush's readiness to offer India help with its nuclear
civilian program while denying it to Musharraf last March
queered relations, but Rice is expected to give short shrift to
more Pakistani pleas for a rethink.

"Rice may convey the mood of the U.S. Congress to President
Musharraf, which is not very comfortable in relation to the
nuclear issue and the war on terror," Ayesha Siddika Agha, an
independent defense and security analyst said.