WASHINGTON — The Obama administration took on high-stakes diplomacy with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan Wednesday, seeking more cooperation against Taliban militants while apologizing for a U.S. bombing strike that Afghans said killed dozens of innocent civilians.
Meeting with Afghanistan President Harmid Karzai and Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari in a prelude to their talks with President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington "deeply, deeply" regrets the loss of life, apparently as a result of a bombing there on Monday.
"Any loss of innocent life is particularly painful," Clinton said. Karzai responded before the cameras that he appreciated Clinton "showing concern and regret." The visiting leader also said he hoped Washington and Kabul could "work together to completely reduce civilian casualties in the struggle against terrorism."
State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said later that Clinton's remarks were offered as a gesture, before all the facts of the incident are known, because "any time there is a loss of innocent life we are going to be concerned about it, and we wanted to make that very clear."
It is the struggle against terrorism, with U.S. troops fighting shadowy enemies on ill-defined battlefields, that got Karzai and Zardari invited to the nation's capital for these intense talks.
Karzai and Zardari responded positively to the call for greater cooperation and coordination, saying they, too, were committed to the struggle against the "common threat" posed by the Taliban and other militants.
"Madame secretary, do have full confidence in us," Karzai told the three countries' delegations, people who sat around a square table in an ornate State Department room. "Pakistan's democracy will deliver," said Zardari, whose government has been challenged by Taliban expansion but has this week launched military operations to push the militants away from areas near the capital.
He said his country "faces many challenges. Our democracy is trying to overcome these challenges ... but we are up to the challenge."
The bombing issue arose earlier Wednesday, when Karzai ordered a probe into allegations by local officials that more than 30 civilians were killed by U.S.-led troops battling militants in western Afghanistan. The International Committee of the Red Cross said a team it had sent to the area saw "dozens of bodies in each of the two locations," including women and children.
Karzai's office said he was going to raise the issue with Obama. And the U.S. has sent a brigadier general to investigate.
At Wednesday's formal opening of talks, Clinton said the U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan had made "common cause" because they "face a common threat."
She introduced Zardari and Karzai as presidents "who are leading their countries at a difficult time in history, who are working hard to maintain and nurture democracy and who understand that we face a common enemy. We may come from different places and have different backgrounds but we are facing a common enemy and therefore we have found common cause."
For his part, Obama was expected to press Zardari to do more against the Taliban, which recently has alarmed the U.S. and its allies by striking out from strongholds on the Pakistani-Afghan border to areas closer to the capital of Islamabad. Obama also seemed ready to ask for a renewed commitment by Karzai to better coordinate operations with Pakistan and the U.S., which will expand its military presence in Afghanistan under the president's revised war strategy against the Taliban.
The Pakistani army, meanwhile, attacked Taliban militants in a northwestern region Wednesday ahead of an expected offensive in the extremist stronghold. It was unclear whether the stretched military planned the kind of sustained operation the Obama administration is seeking.
Wood told reporters that the Pakistani offensive is a "very, very positive" development but must be sustained.
Obama's foreign policy team also planned to 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."
U.S. officials have said there is no movement by the administration to send U.S. military forces into Pakistan, a point on which Pakistani officials have been emphatic. One official said that opposition effectively ended any thoughts about such a move.
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 a 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 it acknowledges could affect the safety of the country's nuclear arsenal.
Associated Press writer Ben Feller contributed to this report.