President Barack Obama meets Wednesday with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan to reinforce their commitments to fighting Taliban militants who are growing in strength and said to be threatening vital U.S. interests.
Obama and his foreign policy and national security team will meet separately and then together with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Senior administration officials will urge Pakistan to step up its own fight against militants as the United States moves to expand military operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. team also will seek assurances from Zardari that his country's atomic weapons are secure.
"The president is deeply concerned about the security situation," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday. "That's why we're sending additional troops to Afghanistan, and that's why we'll talk with both the Afghans and the Pakistanis about our renewed commitment in helping them seek the aid that they need to address those extremists."
Senior administration officials say the goal is to get Afghanistan and Pakistan to work together on a shared extremist threat to their countries; they hope the message has huge weight coming straight from Obama.
The results, they acknowledge, will be measured by whether the outreach leads to concrete actions. That includes, for example, the degree to which the Pakistani army shows a sustained commitment to fighting extremists within its borders.
Officials say there is no U.S. movement to put U.S. military forces in Pakistan, which Pakistani officials have been emphatically against. "That's the end of that subject as far as we're concerned," one official said.
Still, the administration will be seeking assurances that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is safe and that its military intends to face down both Taliban and al-Qaida extremists in coordination with Afghanistan and the United States.
On Tuesday, the administration's point man for the region told lawmakers, who are considering a major boost in U.S. assistance to Pakistan, $1.5 billion per year over five years, that "our most vital national security interests are at stake" in Pakistan.
Special envoy Richard Holbrooke insisted that Pakistan is not a "failed state" but is facing tremendous challenges that they acknowledge could affect the safety of the country's nuclear arsenal.
Holbrooke said the United States needs "to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan's support and involvement."
Holbrooke's comments came as Pakistan's military appeared ready to launch a new offensive against Taliban forces mobilized in the northwestern Swat Valley region. Taliban militants seized government buildings, laid mines and fought security forces as thousands of people fled the coming battleground. Pakistani officials braced for an exodus of half a million people.
The fighting follows the collapse of a three-month truce with the Taliban in the valley that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had likened to an abdication of government control to extremists. It will test the ability of Pakistan's military and the resolve of civilian leaders who had hoped the insurgents could be partners in peace.
Obama and Clinton will hold two sets of meetings on Wednesday with Zardari and Karzai, who made comments similar to Holbrooke's in a Tuesday speech at a Washington think tank. Karzai said the key to the Taliban's resurgence in recent years is its havens across the border in Pakistan.
Holbrooke said the talks, which will continue at a lower level on Thursday, would be "historically important."
"We are talking today about an issue that is of direct importance to our national security," he said, noting that comparisons of the situation to the Vietnam War were inaccurate because the enemy in that case had never posed a direct threat to the United States. The Taliban and al-Qaida remain the most serious threat to national security, he said.
Ahead of Obama's discussions with Zardari and Karzai, Clinton will see them and their delegations separately at the State Department before bringing the two sides together. Later, at the White House, Obama was to follow the same pattern in talks with the two leaders.
On Thursday, other top Obama officials will meet separately with their counterparts from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those include Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Associated Press writer Ben Feller contributed to this report.