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Obama to Hold First Afghanistan-Pakistan Meeting of 2011

On Thursday, President Barack Obama is scheduled to hold the first meeting of the new year with his national security team on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The session follows the president's strong reiteration in his State of the Union Address of U.S. objectives in the region, and the goal of beginning a U.S. troop draw down in July.

The so-called AF/PAK meeting will be the first in 2011, and the second since the death late last year of veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who served as President Obama's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

President Obama and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari met at the White House earlier this month. They discussed joint counter-terrorism efforts and, according to National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Pakistan's economic situation and its effect on regional stability.

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama reiterated the U.S. objective of denying al-Qaida the opportunity to re-establish a stranglehold over the Afghan people and prevent it from again having a launching pad for additional terrorist attacks like those on September 11, 2001 in the United States.

There will be more tough fighting ahead, he said, adding that progress is being made in strengthening Afghan government capabilities and building what he called an enduring partnership.

The president's repeated commitment to begin withdrawing U.S. troops, who currently number about 98,000, from Afghanistan in July brought prolonged applause from members of Congress. "This year we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July we will begin to bring our troops home," he said.

President Obama also had strong words about the fight against al-Qaida's leadership in Pakistan, which he said is under more pressure than at any point since the 2001 attacks against the United States. "Their leaders and operatives are being removed from the battlefield. Their safe havens are shrinking. And we have sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian peninsula, to all parts of the globe: we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you," he said.

But some of the strongest and perhaps most illuminating comments from the administration about Afghanistan and Pakistan came less than a week before.

In blunt remarks to Democratic members of Congress gathered for a policy session in Maryland, Vice President Joe Biden spoke of significant progress in going after al-Qaida's leadership.

However, he added that progress has not come fast enough regarding Pakistan's determination to deal with terrorist safe havens within its borders, and Biden voiced continuing U.S. frustration with Pakistan. "Have they figured out the extent of the problem? Have they come to the conclusion that we think that they have to come to, for their own security and our interest as well, in Afghanistan? No. But they did begin to confront the terrorists who operated from that region and we have made as a consequence of their, I want to be careful how I choose my word, let me just say this, we have made progress in our goal of de-grading al-Qaida," he said.

Biden said that ultimately the U.S. "needs to get it right" in Pakistan, describing the need for greater progress there as "daunting." He also referred to what he called a "disconnect" in the order of what Pakistanis and the U.S. view as their enemy. "To be very frank, our priorities are not, even now, in alignment with the Pakistani government. We are trying hard to reconcile that. But again, I use the phrase again, reality has a way of intruding. They are beginning to figure out that some of the folks they created are the monsters they created, and they are now becoming the target," Biden said.

Asked about Biden's remark about a continuing "disconnect", a White House official on Thursday pointed to the administration's policy review completed in December. That review said progress in the relationship with Pakistan had been substantial but also uneven.

The vice president underscored what President Obama and military commanders have said, that there is no military solution to problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Where nuclear-armed Pakistan is concerned, facing what he called a significant though small radicalized minority, Biden said there is no choice but to continue current efforts.

Biden was unequivocal about the road map the U.S. and NATO have established for Afghanistan, to transition security responsibilities to Afghan government forces. "I want to make it clear. Not maybe. This year, let me say it again, this year NATO, that means the U.S. as well, is going to begin to transition responsibility over security to the Afghans starting in July, and the U.S. will begin drawing down our forces, and by 2014 it is our administration's policy that security for the entire country of Afghanistan will be in the hands of the Afghanis. That is the policy," Biden said.

Various names have been mentioned in media reports, but as of Thursday's Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy meeting there is still no word from the White House on a replacement for Richard Holbrooke. His deputy Frank Ruggiero has been serving in the position.

However, given the difficulty and complexity of the issues between the U.S., and Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the challenges ahead with the start of the NATO and U.S. transition to Afghan forces, a decision is probably not too far off.