"Zardari’s new zeal
By David Pilling and Farhan Bokhari
Published: June 4 2009 20:08 | Last updated: June 4 2009 20:08
|President Asif Ali Zardari: ‘Future generations will not forgive us if we fail’|
A visit to Asif Ali Zardari, president of Pakistan, is not to be undertaken lightly. Four rings of security surround Islamabad, the leafy capital now scarred with sandbags and clogged with concrete roadblocks designed to deter suicide bombers. Then come six more checkpoints at which guards search vehicles, frisk the occupants and confiscate electronic devices.
Even inside the presidential palace, now 10 concentric circles of security from the violent world beyond, soldiers mill around with automatic weapons. Mr Zardari would be like a general in his labyrinth were he not a civilian president in a nation where military rule has been the norm.
The chamber where he receives his guests is more mausoleum than meeting room. Prominently displayed are photographs of Benazir Bhutto, his wife, whose assassination in December 2007 led to his appointment as president eight months later. Now, Mr Zardari has taken on the anti-jihadi battle that was to have been his wife’s. More than once during an interview with the Financial Times, he raises his eyes skywards and – dressed in a silver-grey suit rather more sparkling than his lowly, though improving, approval ratings – invokes the spirit of Benazir.
The president has been criticised by some Pakistanis for hiding in his bunker while his army wages a vicious domestic war against Islamic militants and the country struggles with its biggest movement of displaced people since partition in 1947. Mr Zardari denies he is scared. “Leaders cannot confine themselves for fear of their lives,” he says. But neither, he suggests, would he be much use to his party or his country if he met the same violent end as Bhutto.
The Pakistan beyond his palace fortifications has altered dramatically – perhaps decisively – in a matter of weeks. In February, Mr Zardari’s government had signed a peace agreement with Taliban forces from the picturesque Swat valley just 100 miles from Islamabad. Four weeks ago, it tore up that deal and began a military offensive against the extremists, nearly 1,500 of whom it claims to have killed. Describing it as a “fight for our very survival”, Mr Zardari adds: “Future generations will not forgive us if we fail.”
ISLAMISTS AGAINST ISLAMABAD:
Banned group, set up in 1990 by Pakistani militant Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, that is fighting troops in Indian-administered Kashmir. Linked with November’s attacks on Mumbai. Lahore high court this week released
Mr Saeed from several months of house arrest.
Formed after Pakistani operations in tribal areas on Afghan border following September 11 2001 terrorist attacks in US. Led by diehard militant Baitullah Mehsud, it is accused by Pakistani intelligence of high-profile attacks including murder of presidential candidate Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.
Fundamentalist group that tried to impose sharia law in Swat. Led by hardcore cleric Maulana Fazlullah, it is fighting Pakistani army in Swat.
The about-turn has raised hopes in Washington and elsewhere that Pakistan is finally serious about wiping out the jihadi threat within. It also breathes life into Barack Obama’s so-called Afpak strategy, which envisages widening the war against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups across a theatre separated only by the porous Afghan-Pakistani border. If terrorists are to be defeated, the US president’s new strategy contends, they must be engaged both in Afghanistan, where US troops are stationed, and in Pakistan, where they are not.
Why has Pakistan’s establishment suddenly summoned up the resolve to take on a jihadi threat that it has allowed to fester for years? Pakistanis, including Mr Zardari, say decisive military action has been possible largely thanks to a shift in public opinion. An important factor in galvanising Pakistanis, some of whom had held mixed feelings towards the Taliban and other fundamental Islamists, was video footage purporting to show clerics in Swat flogging a 17-year-old girl. The clip provoked outrage among the mainly moderate Pakistanis and their clerics, who preach a liberal form of Islam.
Allied to that were remarks by Sufi Mohammad, the aged Taliban cleric in Swat with whom the government had struck its deal. No sooner had the supposed moderate face of the Taliban signed the accord than he reneged on its spirit, calling democracy un-Islamic and demanding the nationwide imposition of Muslim sharia law.
His movement’s broader ambitions to challenge the Pakistani state were revealed when militants moved from the valley into the neighbouring regions of Dir and Buner, just 60 miles from Islamabad. Wherever they went they brought destruction, beheading alleged spies, beating barbers who shaved customers’ beards and burning down girls’ schools. “The militants neither laid down arms nor stopped challenging the writ of the state,” says Mr Zardari. “They openly defied the state, the parliament, the constitution and the judiciary.” Having tried dialogue and development, the first two Ds of its strategy, “the government was left with no alternative but to resort to deterrence”. It went to war.
The campaign has gone well, though at the cost of severe civilian suffering. The military, though better versed in facing India than fighting domestic insurgents, has quickly retaken most of the Swat valley. Now it is mopping up pockets of resistance. It has been aided in its task by a political consensus, thanks in part to support from Nawaz Sharif, the popular opposition leader. Vigorous control of the media has helped too.
But as Mr Zardari admits, the consensus to fight the militants is fragile. It is too early to declare victory. “We have a war of ideology to fight,” he says. “Once I have the hearts and minds of people in the region, then I will say we have progressed.”
Even assuming what seems like probable military victory in Swat, there are reasons to doubt the government’s ability to exterminate militancy nationwide. Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassador to Washington and London, says circumstances in Swat will be hard to replicate. “I’d like to believe that this is something that will hold,” she says. “But we should not equate this with sustained support for counter-insurgency.”
She and others identify three main threats to the current national resolve. First, Pakistan must deal swiftly with the 2.5m people said to have been driven from their homeland by the fighting. As many as nine in 10 displaced people are being housed by friends and family outside Swat. But that still leaves at least 200,000 in makeshift camps, struggling with the intense heat of pre-monsoon summer.
For the time being, the public appears to have accepted such suffering as necessary. But Mr Zardari acknowledges that goodwill may evaporate if displaced people start dying in large numbers or if they cannot quickly and smoothly be resettled. That could stretch Pakistan’s already woeful finances by another $2bn, experts estimate. “If the displaced people are dissatisfied, they can easily become prey to the propaganda of the militants,” he says, urging the world to step up aid. “The militants will gain more strength if the issue is not addressed urgently and effectively.”
The second threat is so-called blowback as militants mount attacks on the cities in an effort to sap the public’s will for war. Militant leaders including Baitullah Mehsud, who took responsibility for last week’s blast in Lahore that killed 30, are thought to have sent suicide bombers to the four corners of Pakistan. There have already been bombings and shootings in Peshawar on the Afghan border. Military analysts fear it is only a matter of time before there is another big attack in Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad, where last September a bomb ripped through the Marriott Hotel, killing more than 50. “So far, these attacks have reinforced public anger,” says Ms Lodhi. “But any prolonged bombing campaign in cities raises question marks about whether the public will stay the course.”
Finally, and most crucially, it is far from clear whether the military can replicate its decisive action in Swat elsewhere in Pakistan. If it fails to do so, today’s victories might be hollow. Militants would melt into the cities or regroup in the lawless tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. From there they could plan more attacks on Pakistan and on foreign troops in Afghanistan.
In Swat, strategists say, it was simple to surround the valley and cut off supply lines. But the wild tribal areas of Waziristan, where the battlefront is likely to move next, are different. Pakistani law has never held sway in the region that Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant-general, calls “the mother of all evil”. Waziristan is the base of Mr Mehsud, perhaps Pakistan’s most dangerous jihadi, and is an area that even now, at the height of anti-insurgent success, the military professes little hope of pacifying.
It proved easy to generate a consensus among the public, military and government to fight the Swat Taliban after they turned overtly against the state. But that may not be so straightforward with other militant groups, some of which were secretly encouraged to enter Afghanistan or to make trouble for India in Kashmir. Some Pakistanis have treated this brand of jihadi as patriots and heroes.
Ms Lodhi too says not all militants can “be put in one box, even if you think they’re all ‘bad guys’, as the Americans would say”. She adds: “There’s an expectation in the west for the Pakistani government to say: ‘Right. We are declaring war on everyone.’ But it would be very foolish to declare war on everyone. That way you create a united front.”
F or the moment, Islamabad and Washington see almost eye to eye on what needs to be done. But that consensus could crumble. Richard Holbrooke, special US representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in Islamabad this week: “In many military operations, after they are over, things return to the status quo ante. The government has assured everyone that will not be the case. That is obviously the test.”
Mr Zardari insists he and his government have the stomach for a long fight. When the time is right, he says, the battlefield will be widened. “It is a fight for our very survival. We cannot allow the militants to capture state power through the use of the gun and impose their obscurantist agenda.”
Standing next to Mr Holbrooke at a press conference this week, the president again conjured up the will of his late wife. In her last speech before her car came under fatal attack, she had promised to fight those dedicated to challenging Pakistan’s sovereignty, he said. No one, Mr Zardari added, would again be allowed to challenge Pakistan’s constitution on Pakistani soil.
Outside his palace fortress, however, thousands remain pledged to do precisely that.
If Pakistan watchers have been surprised at the resolve of the military in taking on extremists in the northern Swat valley, they have also been aghast at the consequent humanitarian disaster, write Farhan Bokhari, David Pilling and Daniel Igra.
As Islamabad’s army prepared to bombard towns and cities in Swat, people began pouring out a month ago, sometimes at the rate of 100,000 a day, in what has been described by a United Nations official as the biggest human exodus since Rwanda’s genocide 15 years ago.
Of the estimated 2.5m people who have fled the fighting, up to 90 per cent have found temporary accommodation with friends or relatives elsewhere in Pakistan. But at least 200,000 have found themselves in camps, prey to the deadly heat and to competing claims on their loyalty.
Reports indicate that some are receiving food and transport from militant Islamists, affiliates of the very people the government is fighting. In the past fortnight, riots have been reported in the southern province of Sindh, more than 800 miles from Swat, where locals scuffled with people they assumed to be escaping conflict in the valley.
“Tensions in our country will surely rise if [internally displaced persons] from Swat do not return home soon,” says a senior government official. “Will you eventually have such a large number of people fanning out across Pakistan and triggering further tensions or will they head back home?”
Richard Holbrooke, US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, this week said President Barack Obama’s administration of would propose to Congress an additional $200m in relief assistance for Swat. He added his voice to Pakistani complaints about the limited global response. Speaking at a camp outside Islamabad on Thursday, Mr Holbrooke said the “job is to get them home, and that requires security and assistance from the rest of the world community”.
UN officials say funds so far committed are insufficient, with less than half the $280m needed to feed displaced people forthcoming.
Sir John Holmes, UN under- secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, warns the delay will make Swat’s displaced vulnerable to disease and dehydration. “I am anxious that the donors stump up the money quickly,” he says. “If we don’t get it within a month, the food pipeline begins to stop.
“The biggest problem is the heat,” adds Sir John, speaking to the Financial Times in London. “It gets up to 45°C ... These people are from the mountains and are used to 25°C. There is no water, services are basic and there is a risk of disease.” This could create “fertile ground for disaffection” with the government, he points out.
Ghazala Minallah, a campaigner raising funds for Swat victims, says the Pakistani government was slow to wake up to the crisis. “If only a greater sense of urgency would have prevailed, I am sure a lot more could have been done,” she says.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009"
"Zardari interview transcript
President Asif Ali Zardari spoke to the FT’s Asia Editor, David Pilling, and the Pakistan correspondent, Farhan Bokhari, about the challenges of defeating the Taliban in Pakistan and the wider issues facing his South Asian nuclear armed country.
Published: June 4 2009 19:48 | Last updated: June 4 2009 19:48
FT: What were the significant factors which forced you to change your policy towards the Taliban in Swat and order the military operation?
AZ: Government’s policy on war against militancy is based on three Ds, namely dialogue, development and deterrence. This policy is also backed by the national parliament.
In accordance with this policy of three Ds, the provincial government of Pukhtoonkhwah (North-west Frontier Province, or NWFP) entered into negotiations with local elders in Swat, who promised that the militants will lay down arms and not challenge writ of the state in return for a system of speedy justice called the “Nizam i Adl” (enforcement of justice) regulation. The Nizam i Adl regulation was first enforced in 1994 and amended in 1999. It was again amended in 2009 in accordance with the demand of the people.
The Nifazi Adl regulation 2009 is an improvement on the regulation of 1999 and is not Nifaz i Shariat (enforcement of sharia), as is claimed by some.
Although under the constitution I as the president could sign and approve the regulation, I sent it to the parliament for discussion and debate.
The parliament through a unanimous resolution asked that the regulation 2009 be enforced in the Swat and Malakand (Northern Region). That is how it became a law.
However, in spite of meeting this demand, the militants neither laid down arms nor stopped challenging the writ of the state.
They openly defied the state, the parliament, the constitution and the judiciary, even going to the extent of declaring the parliament and the judiciary as un-Islamic.
The militants even demanded that the Qazis (Islamic court judges) be appointed by them although, according to the regulation 2009, the Qazis were to be appointed by the government in accordance with the laid-down procedure.
They then went into Buner, lower Dir and the adjoining districts challenging the writ of the state and at the same time setting up their own courts.
The government was left with no alternative but to resort to deterrence and the security agencies were tasked to clear the area of the militants and restore writ of the state. This is the reason of our resort to force.
FT: How well prepared is Pakistan to deal with the refugees from Swat? Are you concerned that the pressure posed by the exodus of civilians from Swat will simply become beyond the capacity of your government?
AZ: Relief and rehabilitation of internally displaced persons is a critical issue for Pakistan. Perhaps never before in the history of mankind have nearly 3m people been displaced in a short span of two weeks. The magnitude and scale of displacement is awesome.
The government has made special allocation for the relief of the IDPs. A special support group was established to facilitate the provincial government in registration, camp management, medical and education facilities, and procurement of supplies for relief activities. The government also organised an international donors’ conference in Islamabad to urge the international community for support.
We realise the serious limitations of the government in this task. By a conservative estimate rehabilitation of IDPs will cost billions of dollars. This is in addition to the economic loss suffered due to loss of earnings of 3m people of Swat from agriculture, tourism, mining, trade and transport and the economic loss becomes huge. We also realise that if the displaced people are dissatisfied they can easily become a prey to the propaganda of the militants. Democracy could suffer a serious blow and the militants will gain more strength if the issue is not addressed urgently and effectively.
We have also appealed to the international community to step forward and help Pakistan in providing immediate relief to the displaced people. The US, UK, France and many other countries have promised assistance. In about two weeks’ time I would be travelling to Brussels where the EU summit will also take up this issue as well as our request for access to Pakistan goods to their markets. It is a challenging task and with the help of the international community we are meeting the challenge head-on.
FT: Do you have full confidence in the ability of your army to deal with this challenge? Are you worried that this fight may be beyond the capacity of your army?
AZ: Yes, not only I but the whole nation has full confidence in the ability of its armed forces to meet the challenges to our national security. Our armed forces can meet the challenge; they will. Let there be no doubt or mistake about it.
As a matter of fact it is the fight for our very survival. The future generations will not forgive us if we fail. We can’t afford to lose it. Defeat is not an option for us.
FT: Overall, is there anything approaching an existential threat to Pakistan? How real is the danger of Pakistan drifting towards religious fundamentalism?
AZ: Extremism and a militant mindset is a serious threat, no doubt. But it would be an exaggeration to say that the militants pose an existential threat to our country.
The militants do not have the capacity to pose an existential threat to our country. An overwhelming majority of the people are against them. The civil society and the political forces will never allow it.
There is a broad-based national consensus on the operation against them. The civil society and the political forces will never allow it. This factor alone is enough to say that the militants will never be able to overrun Pakistan no matter how much disruption of normal life they may cause.
FT: As president of Pakistan, how worried are you about rising antiwestern sentiment in your country? Has the world done enough to help Pakistan?
AZ: A number of western countries have pledged help. We are thankful for their assistance. However, much more needs to be done. The world needs to do much more. The world must realise that if the militants are not stopped at the borders of Pakistan then the peace of the region, indeed of the world, will be threatened. It is in the interest of not only Pakistan but the entire international community to contain militancy and militants.
There have been antiwestern sentiments due to the fallout from cold war mistakes when Pakistan and Afghanistan were abandoned after the Soviets’ withdrawal.
Another reason for this has been the support to dictatorship in Pakistan given by some western countries. The militants have also tried to project the war against them as the western-inspired war. The unpopular dictator (former president General Pervez Musharraf) lost political space to this mindset.
Further, respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty and support to its democracy are essential for addressing the antiwestern sentiment. The world should not only hear but also listen to us.
FT: Given the challenges faced by Pakistan, are you convinced that a democratic government is best suited to deal with this challenge? Is there a danger of Pakistan drifting back to military rule?
AZ: After repeated experiments the world has reached the conclusion that democracy is best suited as a form of governance. A democratic government is not only best suited to deal with the situation, it is perhaps the only course available. It was due to democracy that we have been able to build national consensus and give political ownership to the war against militancy.
Under dictatorship, the fight against militancy was fought whimsically without building national consensus. That is why many within Pakistan and abroad suspected that the dictator (Mr Musharraf) was running with the hare and hunting with the hound. Democracy has given ownership to the war and the nation is united against the militants. We are convinced that a democratic government is best suited to deal with the challenge.
FT: After the assassination of your late wife, Benazir Bhutto, how difficult has it become for politicians including yourself to disregard security concerns and campaign publicly for important causes?
AZ: Security is important for all politicians, no doubt particularly under the present circumstances. However, the Pakistan Peoples party (the ruling party) has a history of sacrifices for the cause of the people and democracy. The PPP leadership has never buckled under threats of security.
There are risks involved but political leadership has to take risks. This is what leadership is all about. Leaders cannot confine themselves for fear of their lives. That is why all government and political leaders including myself have visited IDP camps despite the security risk.
FT: You have talked about extending the military operations to the tribal areas such as Waziristan. Given the large-scale humanitarian fallout from Swat, isn’t this going to be a very high-risk undertaking?
AZ: We will fight the militants and extremists wherever they may be in Pakistan. There are difficulties but we cannot abandon our duty to fight the war for our survival and also to win it at all costs.
We cannot allow the militants to capture state power through the use of gun and impose their obscurantist agenda on the people of Pakistan. Nor can we allow them to hold a nation of 170m people hostage. We expect the international community to support us in this endeavour.
FT: Many in the US believe that there are elements in your army who are still sympathetic to the Taliban. How do you respond to that?
AZ: Such misgivings are unfounded. There may have been some elements within the intelligence and security apparatus who, because of their past association with the Taliban during the war against the Soviet Union, had sympathies for them. But as supreme commander of the armed forces, I believe that there are no longer such elements within the state apparatus.
If anyone can produce evidence to prove that there still are some elements supportive of the Taliban within the state apparatus, and these are brought to the attention of the government, it will take appropriate action.
FT: Your government has often protested against the drone attacks carried out by the US. What is the assurance that your own government and the military will be able to target those militants who may otherwise be targeted by the US?
AZ: Since this is our war it is in our national interest that we target the enemies of our country. I have full faith in the ability of our forces to take out the enemies of the people and the state. As a matter of fact we have asked the US to give us the drone technology and we will take out the militants ourselves instead of others violating our sovereignty in taking out the militants.
FT: What is your assessment of US policy under Barack Obama? Do you feel that the US still needs to make further changes on its policy towards the Pakistan and Afghanistan region? If so, what are some of the key changes you would like to see?
AZ: We have welcomed President Obama’s new strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. We feel that it places correct emphasis on the developmental aspect of the war against militancy.
Our people also need to see a visible expression of international assistance and support. Poverty and underdevelopment breed terrorism. We feel that there is need for a Marshall Plan for the development of the region to defeat extremism in the long run. The world needs to support Obama’s strategy and take it in that direction.
FT: Now that a new government has been elected in India, how soon can your two countries move beyond the fallout from the Mumbai attacks? What more is Pakistan prepared to do to improve its relations with India?
AZ: We have welcomed the election in India and the formation of new government in that country.
The relations between India and Pakistan went into a low following the Mumbai attacks last November. The government of Pakistan had strongly condemned the Mumbai attacks and extended full co-operation to India in the investigations.
Unfortunately, however, India suspended the composite dialogue process with Pakistan after the Mumbai incident. Pakistan has reiterated the importance of sustained and constructive engagement to the Indian side to defuse tensions and address each other’s concerns through dialogue. The resumption of dialogue is in the interest of peace in the region."