U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convened a three-way meeting with the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan Wednesday, saying they face a common threat, task and challenge posed by Islamic extremism. Clinton stressed U.S. regret over the death of Afghan civilians in a U.S. air attack Monday against Taliban forces.
The trilateral meeting, the second of its kind this year, comes at a critical juncture with both the Pakistani and Afghan governments facing major battlefield challenges from militant forces.
Clinton, convening joint talks that are to continue later at the White House with President Obama, said the administration has common cause with the two South Asian governments, who she said are struggling with extremists who would destabilize and undermine democracy.
The trilateral meeting convened under a shadow of one of the most serious incidents of U.S.-inflicted civilian casualties of the Afghan war, with dozens of Afghans reported killed in a bombing raid aimed at Taliban forces in the western Farah province.
Clinton in opening remarks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, reiterated a U.S. statement of regret issued late Tuesday and a promise to investigate the matter.
"We deeply regret it," Clinton said. "We don't know all of the circumstances or causes, and there will be a joint investigation by your government and ours. But any loss of life any loss of innocent life, is particularly painful. And I want to convey to the people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan that we will work very hard with your governments and your leaders to avoid the loss of innocent civilian life."
For his part, President Karzai - who appealed in Washington Tuesday for the United States to be more sensitive to Afghans - said he the hoped the two governments can work together to reduce and eventually eliminate such occurrences.
He also said he hoped the trilateral forum can help ease his country's frequently tense relationship with neighboring Pakistan.
"Occasions like today, Afghanistan will use to the best of its ability to deliver to the effectiveness of what we're doing together for stability and to do the right thing with regard to our relations with Pakistan in bringing more confidence, more trust, and a working environment in which the two countries together can wage a more effective struggle against the menace of terrorism, and the violence that radicalism causes," Mr. Karzai said.
U.S. officials in recent weeks have expressed open concern about the Pakistani government's commitment to defending against Taliban inroads after militants went on the offensive in districts north of Islamabad.
But in his remarks, President Zardari stressed his commitment to the fight against terrorism, saying the threat is common to all three countries and the burden is shared.
"I'm here to assure you that we shall share this burden with you, for no matter how long it takes and what it takes, democracies will deliver. My democracy will deliver," Mr. Zardari said. "The people of Pakistan stand with the people of the United State and the people of Afghanistan. We stand with our brother Karzai and the people of Afghanistan against this common threat, this menace which I have called cancer."
The opening event of what are to be two days of high-level talks included the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Pakistan and Afghanistan for the conclusion of a border trade and transit agreement by the end of this year - an accord under discussion for more than 40 years.