Pakistan opts out of isolationism, Zardari’s address at the UN

President Asif Ali Zardari’s address at the General Assembly of the United Nations on Thursday has to be rated as a good speech that fairly expressed Pakistan’s point of view on the problem of terrorism while avoiding the kind of isolationism that exuded from the speech of his Iranian counterpart, Mr Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr Zardari sounded a firm and persuasive note to the United States and NATO-ISAF forces in Afghanistan while committing Pakistan to the war against terror and to interdiction of cross-border attacks from inside Pakistan.

Understandably, there was detailed reference to the assassination of his wife, Ms Benazir Bhutto, and to her “doctrine of reconciliation” between the West and the Islamic world, which he joined with another grand economic gesture after the Second World War in the shape of America’s Marshall Plan. While he asked the UN Secretary General to initiate a UN inquiry into her death, he clearly linked her killing to Al Qaeda: “If Al Qaeda and the Taliban believed that by silencing Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, they were silencing her message, they were very wrong”.

He couched his appeal for economic cooperation in the same words as were used by President Bush while addressing Pakistan after 9/11: “The question I ask the world’s leaders in this august chamber is whether you will stand with us, just as we stand for the entire civilised world on the frontlines of this epic struggle of the new millennium?” Then he made the most important pitch as a representative of the people of Pakistan: “Yes, this is our war, but we need international support — moral, political and economic”.

The burden of his message was: this is not your war alone; it is also Pakistan’s war, but Pakistan will not fight it alone or come under pressure from policy made against the interests of Pakistan: “We must all fight this epic battle together as allies and partners. But just as we will not let Pakistan’s territory to be used by terrorists for attacks against our people and our neighbours, we cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends”.

On the sidelines of the United Nations’ session, Mr Zardari also met the prime minister of India, Mr Manmohan Singh, with whose government the ongoing bilateral dialogue for normalisation was disrupted after the suicide-bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. The body language of the two was positive and Mr Zardari made an appropriate reference to India in his UN speech too: “We will continue the composite dialogue with India so that our outstanding disputes are resolved. Whether it is the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir, or cooperation on water resources, India and Pakistan must accommodate each other’s concerns and interests; we must respect and work with each other to peacefully resolve our problems and build South Asia into a common market of trade and technology”.

It is deplorable that after the Indo-Pak joint statement on the opening of four trade routes, some people have tried to create the impression that this would be a bad departure from Pakistan’s “historic position” since India has not relented on the issue of Kashmir. In fact, it is time for sensible departures from bad policies in the past that have laid us low. So it is quite clear that there are powerful elements inside the state that oppose “reconciliation” more than they oppose terrorism and may in fact be counting on terrorism and such people in and out of the media to bring about a change in Pakistan to their liking. These vested interests must be resisted.

In response to Mr Zardari’s initiatives, the US is making efforts to stage a high-level international conference of European, Asian and Gulf Arab countries to debate “common strategies” to help Pakistan defeat the terrorism threat. It is expected that Pakistan will help the G8 countries arrive at a package of economic assistance that will tide Pakistan over its problems of coping with the global price hikes and internal market downturn. The United States has to step forward in this regard and give the lead.

Robert M Hathaway, the director of the Asia Programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, wrote thus last week: “As it currently stands, US trade policy actually discriminates against Pakistan. US tariffs on Pakistani textiles are far steeper than on similar goods from other countries…Each container of exported towels puts 500 Pakistani men and women to work. Yet, textile exports from literally dozens of developing countries around the world face lower US tariffs than do Pakistani textiles. The least we could do is to level the playing field for Pakistani goods”. Right you are, Mr Hathaway!

Pakistan would dive into a most dangerous isolationism if the swelling domestic opinion against American cross-border attacks were to become decisive. The world needs a nuclear-armed Pakistan to be part of the global effort against Al Qaeda. And Pakistan needs to avoid the Taliban like the plague and not fall into the trench of isolation without the economic cushion needed to break this fall. President Zardari has put Pakistan’s case clearly in a spirit of cooperation. This is a foreign policy posture that has more chances of success than any other approach divorced from reality. (Daily Times)