President Asif Ali Zardari replies to questions from The Independent

Pakistan’s embattled leader tells Andrew Buncombe what the US should be doing to help him tackle the extremist menace
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The Independent Online

From the outside, Pakistan appears to be lurching from one crisis to the next. What is the Pakistan People's Party government doing to address to bring some stability? 

Obviously this has been a transformational time in Pakistan.  You must keep in mind that Pakistan has suffered the aftermaths of the cold war and that cold war had left deep imprints on our society. We were the worst sufferers from the ills of the Afghan war. Recently, ten years of dictatorship had badly damaged the basic democratic infrastructure of the state -- from political parties, to the civil society, to an independent media, and to a fully functioning parliament and provincial governments.  From the outset the PPP determined that the key element for Pakistan was reconciliation.  After the assassination of my wife, our nation was perilously close to civil strife.  If I, as the co-chairman of the Party, had asked my people to take to the streets, the very existence of the federation would have been threatened.  We chose a different course; the course of rule of law; the course of ballots and not bullet; of democracy by elections and not anarchy by mob rule.  When my party won the elections convincingly on February 18th, 2008, we immediately reached out to other parties to form broad based coalitions of national unity in the National Assembly and in the four provincial assemblies.  Frankly, we could have formed much narrower governments in the center, and even a PPP led government in the Punjab with different coalition partners.  Once again, we chose the route of reconciliation.  Today, Pakistan's democracy is growing stronger each day.  Our Prime Minister was elected with a unanimous vote of confidence.  Earlier this month, the PPP candidate for Chairman of the Senate (who is next in line to the Presidency) was elected unanimously, with support from all parties and all provinces.  We are working with all parties and all opposition leaders to bring civility and dialogue back into our political culture.  And I reaffirm our party's commitment to restore to the parliament that powers that had been abrogated by dictators in the past.  We may be at war; we may be in a major economic crisis; But we refuse to turn our back on strengthening our democracy.  For half our life my nation has been governed by military dictatorships.  This time we intend to do it right and build a permanent democracy for generations of Pakistanis yet unborn. What appear to some people as lurching from crisis to crisis are the birth pangs of a lasting democracy. Not all political actors share our vision of fighting terrorism, lessening tensions in the region and focusing on building the economy. It is natural that they would challenge the government but we have fought every challenge effectively. The daily ups and down of democracy should not be interpreted as lack of stability.

What is the biggest problem currently facing Pakistan - militancy, a troubled economy or political turmoil? Or something else?

We face a multitude of serious problems simultaneously.  There is a violent insurrection in the areas bordering Afghanistan that has caused much death and destruction.  This is the legacy of the jihad the whole world came to fight against the Soviet Union from our soil during the 1980s. Pakistan, above all nations, has been the principal victim of terrorism in this world.  We also face foreigners who came here in the aftermath of war in Afghanistan to use our territory to plan and execute attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan.  We must now fight the terrorists and extremists to defend our traditional way of life. So this is our war as much as it is any other nation's war.  We are doing everything within our power to confront, contain and destroy terrorism, but the task is not easy.  If it were easy, NATO would have long ago quelled the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan.  But we are doing our best, and with the support and encouragement of the international community, we think we will have even more success in the months ahead.

But as your question noted, militancy is not our only problem, although we think it is fundamental related to our other problems.  Poverty and militancy are co-related. They breed on one another. Our economy was scarred and weakened by the priorities of dictatorship and decades of failure to address the social needs of our people.  We had made some strides under my wife's second PPP government in attracting enormous foreign investment into our country;  in greatly expanding our power generation and delivery capability;  in focusing on decreasing illiteracy among our children and especially among our girls and women;  in immunising our babies;  in electrifying our villages and providing clean and safe water to our people.  But those advances were reversed by dictatorship, and after the February 18th election we faced enormous problems, not leased of which were energy and food shortages for the first time in our nation's history.  As we began to address this economic quagmire, the world fell into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Donor nations that would have been expected to help us through our transition period suddenly faced enormous economic constraints.  In many ways we have been left on our own.  It has been tough, but I think we have bottomed out and are now moving forward once again.

We must always remember that fanaticism thrives on the discontent of the people.  When people are unemployed and their children are hungry, they become desperate.  Desperation is what the demagogues and fanatics exploit for their own political advantage.  These fanatics manipulate Islam and distort it, and exploit the difficulties of our people.  We will never really succeed in containing and destroying the militants and fanatics, if we do not address the social needs of our people.  The Untied States understood that when it committed to the Marshall Plan after World War II, containing the spread of communism in Europe  - in Italy, in France, in Greece  - by stabilising the economies of the continent.  This is the model we must apply to containing terrorism today.  Happily, it is a centerpiece of the Obama strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

After last year's elections, there was a great deal of public goodwill. Now that goodwill appears to be turning to frustration. Why is that?

As I have said, after a decade of dictatorship the people had enormous expectations of rapid improvement in their lives.  That is still very much our goal, but the enormity of the economic crisis both within Pakistan and internationally, compounded by the war that we fight within and along our borders, has made progress much slower than we had hoped. The international community has been slow in funneling assistance.  As you have seen that the transition from Republican to Democrats slowed down the process of help and aid to Pakistan. There was world wide recession and serious and severe oil prices hike. We did not receive any democracy dividends initially. We were hard hit by the economic recession and we had to resort to an IMF program and we faced the domestic unpopularity of this difficult decision. The terrorists are aware that we intend to put them out of business so they have also mounted many attacks in an attempt to demoralize our nation. Then there is the usual tug of power politics and the tendency of some observers to paint doomsday scenarios.  But I think that the people appreciate that our democratic government is functioning. There is no frustration as such among the people. A clear indication to this fact is our successful Senate elections held recently which showed continued support to PPP and its government. The National Assembly, the Senate and the four provincial assemblies and the Presidency are all working within the constitution to restore the writ of law to Pakistan.  And our military and intelligence agencies are behaving responsibly and respecting the sovereignty and legitimacy of the elected government.  That is an enormous and positive change that bodes well for the future. We have been elected for five years and there is no point in giving a final verdict on our performance within a few months or even a year of our taking office.

The recent decision to allow Sharia Law to operate in the Swat Valley appeared like a climb-down in the face of a threat from religious militants. Why did a secular party such as the PPP agree to such a deal? 

As you know that PPP is sharing Government with Awani National Party in Pashtunkhwa province. So we have to take along all the political forces with us. In its historic perspective, the Swat Valley was incorporated into Pakistan only in the late 1960s; It has always had a different and unique place in our politics and culture.  The area is very traditional, and we respect those traditions.  Much of the problems in Swat this year have been caused by the frustration of the people with the slowness of the judicial system, and there were people in the valley who wanted a return to the traditional judicial based that existed before Swat's merger into Pakistan. The people of the valley identified tradition with Islam. The Taliban started taking advantage of this local Swati demand to create an insurgency that was threatening security in the entire area. Instead of allowing the Taliban to gain momentum by attaching themselves to a local demand, we decided to separate the local Islamic law campaign from the broader Taliban insurgency.  Our government and the government of the Pashtunkhwa Province recognise that there is a broad spectrum of ideology and degrees of militancy in Pakistan today, and we are trying very hard to separate more moderate elements from the real terrorists.  That is what the Swat dialogue has been all about.  You see that the Obama administration has also decided to use dialogue as one of their main strategies for fighting the war on terror. But let me assure you that this does not mean that we are relegating the Valley to fanaticism.  The girls schools that were destroyed over the last year will be rebuilt.  Indeed, there are many girls elementary and secondary schools that are already functioning in Swat today.  We pragmatically have addressed the traditions of this region, but we have not turned our back on our party's manifesto and our basic commitments to human rights and social opportunity. We need to take into account the ground realities. I think it would be premature to call it a bad deal. It is an evolving situation.

India says that Pakistan is not doing enough to assist in the investigation into the Mumbai attacks. How is Pakistan helping? How is Pakistan 's own investigation progressing? 

I think the Indian government is not dissatisfied with the level of our cooperation.  We have offered to help, and we have helped.  We have made substantial arrests of people within groups that may have been involved in the Mumbai attacks.  But we need cooperation from India to build the case for effective prosecution of these accused in our courts. Many of the extremists are the same people that conduct acts of terrorism within our own country.  Mumbai was attacked and we condemn it.  But let us remember that every day Pakistan is attacked by terrorists.  They destroyed our Marriott hotel in Islamabad and killed over 50 people.  We will cooperate with all nations including our neighbours in identifying and pursuing terrorists wherever and whoever they are.  We will prosecute them and we will punish them upon conviction.  Remember, this is OUR war.  Our children and women are dying, and hundreds of our soldiers have been killed.  Pakistan above all nations on earth is in the trenches of the war against these fanatics and terrorists.  Our very existence is at stake.

Is there any news about the nine other militants, whose bodies are still in the mortuary in Mumbai. Is Pakistan ready to accept they are Pakistanis - as the Indian authorities allege? 

Our investigation into the Mumbai attacks is continuing.  Some of these terrorists may in fact have been born in Pakistan. But we believe that this operation was international, with significant support from within India itself. 

There are reports that the US is considering extending its use of drone-carried missiles to Balochistan. Furthermore there are claims that Pakistan - while publicly decrying their use - actually cooperates with such strikes. How do to respond to these claims?

Pakistan has made it clear both publicly and privately to the Untied States government that we are willing to take out high value terrorist targets on our own, and we welcome the technology and intelligence assistance that will give us the ability to succeed.  President Obama once said that he would act if we weren't willing and able.  We certainly are willing, and with international support we will become even more able.  I am the President of Pakistan and I cannot condone violations of our sovereignty, even when they are done by allies and friends.  We would much prefer that the US share its intelligence and give us the weapons, drones and missiles that will allow us to take care of this problem on our own. President Obama has denied any such intentions to extend the use of drone attacks to Balochistan. These drone attacks are counter productive.

It has been two years since the PPP put its support behind efforts to reinstate the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Why has it taken so long?   There are reports that you, personally, have been opposed to the move to reinstate Mr Chaudhry. How do you respond to such allegations? 

The question is irrelevant on two counts. Firstly, we could not appoint second Chief Justice when one was already present and secondly, at the end of the Chief Justice Dogar's tenure, I restored Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary through an executive order.  Our government many months ago sent to our coalition allies a 33 page draft proposal to dramatically amend the constitution of Pakistan to bring it into conformity with the original intent of our founding fathers.  One of the key elements of that draft proposal was the restoration of the judges who were dismissed during Musharraf's Emergency Rule.  We also proposed the elimination of Musharraf's two term ban on people serving as Prime Minister, which would allow Mr. Nawaz Sharif, if he so wished, to contest for the Prime Ministership in four years when the current government's term expires.  We proposed a whole package of reforms but very sadly, the key party in opposition in our National Assembly never responded to our Constitutional package.  If they had joined with us when we proposed the package, the chief justice of the Supreme Court would have been restored many, many months ago and the entire judicial system of our country would be reformed and restructured.

The recent scenes in Lahore , where police were firing tear-gas at unarmed protesters, reminded many people of what used to happen under Mr. Musharraf's rule. How can a democratic party such as the PPP order police to use such tactics? 

This incident is now behind us. But let us remember that the government conducted itself at all times within the framework of the constitution and law. It is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of any government to keep order and protect against violence.  Our government had credible intelligence that the planned march was going to be targeted by terrorists to disrupt the country. Thus our police intervened.  There may and probably were examples of overreaction by both the police and the protestors, and that is unfortunate but not totally unexpected at time of unusual tension.  It is a sign of our commitment to reconciliation that the issue was resolved peacefully without any loss of life.  My office and the office of Prime Minister Gilani worked in concert to defuse the problem, restore order and address fundamental concerns of the protestors and parties.  The issue was resolved peacefully, democratically, and within the writ of law.

The PPP was also committed to reducing the Constitutional powers of the presidency. Now that you are president, such a commitment appears to have disappeared. Are you ready to trim some of your own powers? 

The Parliament is sovereign and we are a signatory to the Charter of Democracy. The PPP government is willing to trim the powers of the presidency with the consent of all the political forces present in the Parliament. The constitutional package that our government proposed to all political parties in Pakistan not only eliminated the power of the president to sack democratically elected government but restored to the government all of the powers that had been usurped by military dictators in the past.  Although our opposition parties have refused to endorse that Constitutional package, when I spoke to the National Assembly of Pakistan [recently] I once again reiterated my commitment to return to the basic structure of our 1973 constitution.   I fully understand that this entails giving up very significant powers of my office, but that is my commitment, it was the commitment of my wife and it is in the manifesto of my party.  The package of constitutional reforms will be introduced, and Insha'Allah shall be passed with the support of the requisite majority in both houses of parliament.  Ours is a new Pakistan.  It is a democratic Pakistan.  We intend to change our history and become a model to the entire Islamic world of democracy, technology and economic development.  That's why the PPP was elected, and that is why I am President.