WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush drew together Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a meal at the White House and urged the two bickering war-on-terror allies to find ways to put aside their differences.
"Today's dinner is a chance for us to strategize together, to talk about the need to cooperate, to make sure that people have got a hopeful future," Bush said in brief remarks, flanked by the two leaders in the Rose Garden.
"It's very important for the people in Pakistan and in Afghanistan to know that America respects religion, and we respect the right for people to worship the way they see fit," he said.
The occasion for the get-together was iftar, the evening meal that Musharraf, Karzai and other Muslims eat to break daytime fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
Judging by the body language Bush himself had said he would be watching, there were plenty of tensions to overcome over a light dinner of soup, sea bass and salad.
Bush spoke as the Afghan and Pakistani leaders stood stiffly on either side of him. Musharraf remained expressionless during his host's brief remarks, while Karzai repeatedly nodded agreeably. Karzai and Musharraf never touched, each taking Bush's hand before turning to go inside, but not each other's.
Bush organized the dinner as a way to calm bickering between the leaders of neighboring countries crucial to Bush's anti-terror drive since the Sept. 11 attacks of five years ago.
For months, Karzai and Musharraf have been trading barbs and criticizing each other's efforts to fight terrorists along their long, remote, mountainous border. Afghan officials allege that Pakistan lets Taliban militants hide out and launch attacks into Afghanistan. Musharraf says Karzai has bad information and notes that Pakistan has deployed 80,000 troops along the porous border.
Karzai says Musharraf turns a blind eye to hatred and extremism being bred at Islamic schools in Pakistan. At one point Musharraf said Karzai is behaving "like an ostrich," refusing to acknowledge the truth and trying to shore up his political standing at home.
They also point fingers at one another over Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden and other terror leaders. Each leader says bin Laden isn't hiding in his country and suggests the other might do more to help find him.
All this comes as Afghanistan suffers its worst reversals since the U.S.-led ouster of the extremist Taliban regime nearly five years ago.
The Taliban militants have regrouped and launched an offensive earlier this year whose strength and organization took Afghan and U.S. officials by surprise. They have adopted methods commonly used by militants in Iraq: suicide bombings, ambushes and beheadings. Illegal opium production has risen yearly despite billions spent to suppress it, and Afghanistan is now the source of more than 90 percent of the world's supply.
The White House clearly thinks that enough is enough.
"The president has made it clear that they've got a shared interest, and the shared interest is combating terrorism," White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters. "He will remind them of the fact, and I think both men understand that."
The United States will do what it can to resolve the differences, "but the two leaders also understand that they've got a shared interest in making sure that the other guy succeeds," he said.
Bush's three-way dinner party, just weeks before the Nov. 7 congressional elections, comes as he is working to convince voters that Republicans are best able to guide the U.S.-led war against terrorism. He faces declining American support for both the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the ongoing U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan.
Bush administration officials say, only half joking, that Karzai and Musharraf, along with the influential and relatively moderate Iraqi Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani, are the "indispensable men" of post-Sept. 11 foreign policy for their ability to hold Islamic extremism at bay.
Musharraf faces little political opposition within Pakistan, but he lives under constant threat of assassination. Karzai is increasingly embattled, hard-pressed to extend his political control into many regions of Afghanistan and facing a loss of popular support.
American troops on Afghanistan's eastern frontier have seen a tripling of attacks since a truce between the Pakistani army and pro-Taliban tribesmen that was supposed to stop cross-border raids by militants, a U.S. military officer said Wednesday.
The agreement appears to have bolstered Taliban infiltrators, said the U.S. officer, who agreed to discuss the situation only if not quoted by name due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry rejected the U.S. claim and said home-based insurgents were behind the violence in Afghanistan, where at least 25 militants were reported killed in fighting Wednesday.
Raising further questions about the cease-fire, a Pakistani political leader maintained Taliban leader Mullah Omar approved the deal. A government official denied that.
Karzai said Omar is "for sure" in Pakistan. Musharraf says he's in Afghanistan.