After weeks of watching the Taliban make unprecedented inroads toward the Pakistani capital, political and military leaders Sunday sought to address the limits of the insurgency that spans the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Three crucial figures in arresting the Taliban's advance – Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US forces in the region – spoke on Sunday news shows, casting the threat as grave but not yet capable of toppling a government.
Their comments came as the Pakistani Army continued its latest bid to stop the Taliban from moving ever-closer to Islamabad. The offensive in the strategically important Swat Valley is intense, already forcing some 200,000 residents to flee – a number that could increase to a half million, aid groups say.
In what is perhaps an indication that the Taliban have overplayed their hand, the Army appears to be moving against the threat seriously: commandos have been deployed to the area with the expectation that they might have to fight house to house, the Telegraph reports.
In a taped interview aired on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, President Zardari said Pakistan is involved in "a war of our existence." But he did not believe the Taliban could overthrow Islamabad. "We have a threat, yes, but a collapse, no," he said.
The Army's advance in Swat marks the failure of Pakistan's boldest attempt yet to compromise with the Taliban. In February, Islamabad had agreed to implement Islamic law in Swat in return for a cease-fire. Though Zardari signed the deal into law, he had repeatedly hesitated to do so – weighing American opposition against Pakistanis' widespread desire for a peaceful end to the fighting.
The collapse of the deal has borne out his original qualms. "I didn't think it would work, because [the Taliban] are not a rational people," he said.
For now, he said, Pakistan has 125,000 troops on the ground. Although more soldiers might improve the situation, "we think they are sufficient."
Also on "Meet the Press," Afghan President Karzai said that a surge of US troops in his country – with 21,000 more coming this summer – is overdue: "It should have happened six years ago." But he added, it is not "too late."
Despite a string of suicide bombings within various ministries in Kabul, he said the Taliban did not constitute a threat to the government, but rather a threat to "security and a peaceful life."
The US and Karzai are currently looking at each other with significant distrust.
The American military effort in Afghanistan has brought increasing claims of civilian casualties. Most recently, villagers in the western province of Farah say that US bombs killed dozens of civilians including women and children this week. The reports have turned many Afghans against Karzai's government and the war that the US military is fighting with its blessing.
"Civilian casualties are undermining the support of the Afghanistan people," Karzai said.
Yet Western officials are similarly exasperated with the Afghan president, according to a report in the Times of London. With presidential elections coming, Karzai chose a former warlord, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, as his running mate. He is also in talks to bring the party of another brutal warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, into the government.
The warlords were responsible for the Afghan Civil War: four years of chronic misrule and violence, which left entire neighborhoods of Kabul in ruins and eventually led to the welcoming of the Taliban.
Karzai said he would like to reconcile with the Taliban who were driven out of the country by fear or intimidation after the US invasion. But the part of the Taliban that is allied with Al Qaeda "must be stopped," he said.
On "FOX News Sunday," General Petraeus said Afghan and international forces had been successful at driving the remnants of Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. The hub of Al Qaeda's operations is now almost wholly Pakistan, he said.
"There's no question that Al Qaeda's senior leadership has been there and has been in operation for years," Petraeus said.
For this reason, he said he was heartened by Pakistan's new offensive in Swat, which appears to have broader support politically and militarily than offensives of the past: "There is a degree of unanimity that there must be swift and effective action taken against the Taliban in Pakistan."