Eye on Pakistan

Zardari Interview in the FT: Part 3

Posted in Domestic Affairs, Foreign Affairs by onpakistan on June 8, 2009

Zardari recently gave an interview to the Financial Times (FT), which was given substantial coverage in this newspaper. In this blog post, the third of three, I reproduce the FT’s analysis/understanding of the interview and the military action in Swat. This article can be found here.

Zardari’s new zeal

By David Pilling and Farhan Bokhari

Published: June 4 2009 20:08 | Last updated: June 4 2009 20:08

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.”


  • Lashkar-e-Taiba – 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.
  • Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan – 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.
  • Tehreek-e-Nifaz Shariat-e-Mohammadi – 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.

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