WASHINGTON: Discussions between Presidents Barack Obama and Asif Ali Zardari focused on shared efforts to fight terrorism and to promote regional stability, the White House said on Friday.
A brief White House statement issued after the Obama-Zardari meeting earlier Friday said that President Obama also underscored the importance of the US-Pakistan relationship and America’s continued support for Pakistan.
“The discussion focused on our shared efforts to fight terrorism and promote regional stability, specifically on the importance of cooperating toward a peaceful and stable outcome in Afghanistan,” the White House said.
The White House also said that President Obama was looking forward to visiting Pakistan later this year.
While talking to the Pakistani media after the meeting, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee said the Obama-Zardari meeting was “very significant” and indicated the importance the United States attached to this key ally in the war against terror.
The congresswoman, who chairs the Pakistan Caucus on Capitol Hill, disagreed with the suggestion that the US Congress was becoming increasingly hostile towards Pakistan.
“To the contrary, there’s a growing understanding of Pakistan’s position and its problems. The hostility is towards the terrorists,” she said.
Later, briefing journalists at the White House US National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon noted that the Zardari-Obama talks were not a full bilateral meeting between the United States and Pakistan.
President Zardari came to Washington to attend Ambassador Holbrooke’s memorial service and President Obama invited him to the White House.
“They talked about the overall relationship and the US support to Pakistan. They talked about the economic situation in Pakistan, and the joint work that we can do to advance economic stability in Pakistan, and which we are doing,” Mr Donilon said.
The two leaders also talked about the blasphemy law towards the end of the discussion, he added.
During the course of the discussion, President Obama made it clear that he was glad that President Zardari would have the time to come over and have a short visit to the White House.
“But the president, obviously, said to him, you know, that we’ll be planning a more formal visit for President Zardari and the Pakistanis here,” Mr Donilon said.
He noted that the US also had a trilateral meeting with Pakistan and Afghanistan in Washington in February and were planning for the next strategic dialogue with the Pakistanis this year as well.
A reassurance of support for the democratic process in Pakistan and a commitment to continuing economic reforms were other points that Presidents Obama and Zardari agreed on at the brief meeting.
“Nobody said Pakistan was not doing enough. Nothing negative was said about either country,” Ambassador Husain Haqqani told a briefing after the meeting. “Both agreed to further strengthen bilateral relations.”
While only Ambassador Haqqani accompanied the president, Mr Obama’s included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Counter-terrorism Coordinator John Brenner and Deputy National Security Advisor General Douglas Lute.
This indicated an unusual emphasis on security issues but Ambassador Haqqani insisted that no single issue dominated the 30-minute meeting.
Ambassador Haqqani said the meeting was not a substitute for President Zardari’s official visit to Washington or that of President Obama to Islamabad, both expected this year.
Besides reiterating his support to democracy in Pakistan, President Obama also expressed his desire to further strengthen the strategic partnership between Pakistan and the US, Mr Haqqani said.
He blamed both the US and Pakistani media for digging out old stories about differences between the two allies and highlighting them.
“Despite such stories, we continue to work positively in all areas of cooperation,” he said.
The ambassador said it was wrong to assume that Pakistan was seeking yet another package for economic or military aid from the US.
Explaining what President Zardari discussed with Mr Obama on this issue, Mr Haqqani said: “Pakistan does not want to be a permanent recipient of aid. It wants to be self-sufficient and for that we need economic reforms.”
Pakistan, he said, was “very cognizant” of that and was working on that objective.
President Zardari assured the US leader that Pakistan would implement economic reforms “while taking into consideration the country’s economic, political and social realties.”
The ambassador emphasised that President Zardari did not ask for aid and that was not the focus of the meeting.Mr Haqqani also rejected a suggestion that IMF’s conditions for continuing its assistance to Pakistan were also discussed at the meeting.
Pakistan remained committed to IMF-proposed economic reforms, entered with American support but not under anybody’s pressure, he said.
“We are committed and realise that we have to make the reforms, but adjustments sometimes have to be made and we are discussing those adjustments with the IMF.”
Responding to a question about Governor Salman Taseer’s assassination, Mr Haqqani said that this issue and its link to the blasphemy law came up for discussion.
“President Zardari explained that the government of Pakistan shares those concerns but religion is a sensitive issue and Pakistan will deal with this issue according to our own circumstances,” Ambassador Haqqani said.
“So it was no question of anybody telling anybody what to do.” The blasphemy law, he said, would be discussed in Pakistan by the Pakistani lawmakers and this was something the Americans understood.
Mr Haqqani said that this meeting was “not the sum total of the US-Pakistan dialogue, so the entire range of relations and the issues were not and could not be compressed into this meeting.”