Gathered around the table

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Bush brought the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the White House last night, hoping that over a quiet meal in the family dining room he could convince 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 countercharges, 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-Qaida 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."

Karzai has charged that Pakistan is allowing Taliban and al-Qaida 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.


Musharraf has denied that his government is permitting the groups to elude justice or reducing its efforts. He, in turn, has accused Karzai of failing to deal with violence and drugs in his country.

The friction between the two men, who have met separately with Bush during their U.S. travels, has become increasingly plain over the past week.

Appearing with Karzai on Tuesday, Bush jokingly acknowledged that he expected the dinner to be tense. He told reporters that it would be "interesting for me to watch the body language of these two leaders to determine how tense things are."

"I'll be good," Karzai promised.

As the three leaders headed inside last 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 Adviser 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 yesterday in Tampa, 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 dealing 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 religious schools that foster terrorist attitudes and to recognize the Afghan government's legitimacy.

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 has denied the deep problems of his own country, "turning a blind eye, like an ostrich" to the sources of violence within Afghanistan's borders. 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 invasion of Iraq and continued to believe that "it has made the world a more dangerous place."

One expert on the region predicted that the meeting might prove a tactical gain for the White House, but actually ending the conflict between the two 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 will probably not fundamentally change relations between the two neighbors, Haqqani said.

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.