WASHINGTON — President Bush brought the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the White House on Wednesday evening, hoping that over a quiet meal in the family dining room he could persuade two key U.S. allies to stop blaming each other for their neighborhood's deepening terrorist threat.
Aides said Bush hoped that after days of exchanging charges and counter-charges, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai would promise to improve cooperation and intelligence-sharing on their shared border, the site of escalating attacks by Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
"We understand that there are tensions between the countries, and we're going to do whatever we can, that they want us to do, to help resolve them," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. "But the two leaders also understand that they've got a shared interest in making sure that the other guy succeeds."
After dinner, Snow released a statement saying the three leaders had "committed to supporting moderation and defeating extremism through greater intelligence sharing, coordinated action against terrorists, and common efforts to enhance the prosperity of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Musharraf discussed economic and security initiatives in tribal areas, and Karzai talked about enhanced security and speedier development, Snow said.
Karzai has accused Pakistan of allowing Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters to find sanctuary on its side of the border. He has said that Pakistan's recent agreement with pro-Taliban militants to withdraw troops from the North Waziristan border area would shift much more of the anti-terrorist fight to Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces across the border.
Musharraf has denied that his government is permitting the groups to elude justice or is scaling back its efforts. He, in turn, has accused Karzai of failing to deal with violence and drugs in his country.
As the three leaders headed inside Wednesday evening, Bush told reporters from the Rose Garden steps that the dinner was "a chance to strategize together, to make sure that people have got a hopeful future."
Also invited, the White House said, were Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor Stephen Hadley and the Pakistani and Afghan ambassadors to the United States. The menu included spicy sea bass and sunchoke soup.
In an appearance earlier Wednesday in Tampa, Fla., where he met with officials at the U.S. military command responsible for the Mideast and Central Asia, the Afghan leader muted his criticisms. "I'm simply seeking more cooperation," said Karzai, who is struggling with declining public support at home. "Afghanistan has to do more. Pakistan has to do more."
Karzai has indicated that he wants Musharraf to commit to doing more to capture militants, to close down religious schools that foster terrorism, and to recognize the Karzai government.
Musharraf, who has also used his U.S. visit to promote his new book, "In the Line of Fire," has been tough on Karzai as well.
He told CNN that Karzai had denied the deep problems of his own country, "turning a blind eye, like an ostrich," to the sources of violence within Afghanistan. And the two nations shouldn't be compared, Musharraf said, because while Pakistan has a strong government and military, in Afghanistan "everything had broken down."
Musharraf didn't hold back on the Bush administration either. He said he had never supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and continued to believe that "it has made the world a more dangerous place."
The Pakistani president also stopped by "The Daily Show," where political satirist Jon Stewart asked him who would win an election in Pakistan: Bush or Osama bin Laden.
"I think they'll both lose miserably," Musharraf replied.
An expert on the region said the meeting might prove a tactical gain for the White House, but said ending the conflict between the two neighboring countries would be difficult.
"In public relations terms, it will probably help quite a bit," said Husain Haqqani, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University. "President Bush will show himself bringing the two closer together, and perhaps they'll agree on a specific laundry list of steps to improve their cooperation."
But the meeting probably will not fundamentally change relations between the neighbors, Haqqani added, because Pakistan will not want to entirely give up support for Islamist groups, which it has used as a lever of influence over events in Afghanistan.
"The duality over the Pakistani approach is not going to end just because there was a great dinner at the White House," said Haqqani, a former Pakistani government official and journalist.