Zardari’s challenge – interview to the International Herald Tribune

Zardari’s challenge

Those are brave words addressed to the International Herald Tribune by President Asif Ali Zardari on Sunday: “It is my decision that we will go after them [Al Qaeda and terrorists], we will free this country”. The words came with stern advice to the US too about attacks inside Pakistani territory: “It is counter-productive and a political price is paid”. He also took a personal view of terrorism with which many Pakistanis would agree: “I will fight them because they are a cancer to my society, not because of my wife only, but because they are a cancer, yes, and they did kill the mother of my children, so their way of life is what I want to kill. I will suck the oxygen out of their system so there will be no Talibs”.

It is this kind of commitment that people in the US and Europe want to hear before they take on the job of helping Pakistan out of its economic crisis. But there are many inside Pakistan, even inside the establishment he heads, who will not entirely agree with his way of looking at the phenomenon of Al Qaeda and its legions of Taliban unleashed on Pakistan. Also, he has a party that follows him and it is the largest party in Pakistan. But there are many among its leaders who would draw a line on the extent to which they may commit themselves to the war against Al Qaeda.

The question of thinking as one and acting as one is still the basic problem. Indeed, the market of domestic opinion is doing a hard sell on hatred of the US and is interpreting the crisis in Pakistan as a fallout of America’s policies in the region in respect of Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are some who still question the definition of terrorism accepted by the West, who question the incident of 9/11 itself and are recommending jihad against the West in general and the US in particular. In fact, even within some state institutions there are important functionaries who are swayed by the rhetoric pouring out of the media against the US and not against Al Qaeda. Thus there is an important part of the stakeholder community who thinks that the war in Afghanistan is actually another war against India.

After the Marriott blast, the uppermost thought in the mind of many commentators was not of fighting Al Qaeda but of rebuking the US for its trespasses into Pakistani territory because they thought that what was happening to Pakistan was a kind of reaction of “good Muslims” and not an act of heinous crime. Mr Zardari himself is a man of compromises and some of them have run counter to the aims he has expressed in this interview. For instance, to carry the clerical party of Maulana Fazlur Rehman he returned the Lal Masjid complex of madrassas to the Deobandis who dominate in the Tribal Areas and are fighting as auxiliaries of Al Qaeda. In fact, since Mr Zardari arrived on the scene, a number of illegal madrassas have actually opened in Islamabad, which, together with Peshawar, is the most “Al Qaeda-infected” city in Pakistan.

The establishment in Pakistan and especially its military component has not fully distanced itself from the paradigm of threats that Mr Zardari wants to break. The entire world is complaining about the ISI and its alleged double-dealing in respect of war against terrorism in Pakistan. His reaction was: “The ISI will be handled, that is our problem. We don’t hunt with the hound and run with the hare, which is what Musharraf was doing”. While what he said was true of General Musharraf. He was a torn figure believing in what he was doing for the war against terror, but unable to dissociate himself from the thinking of the military establishment, and was not able to bring about the change of paradigm he was prescribing for Pakistan.

The last time the PPP government tried to reorganise the ISI it did not succeed, and orders given in this regard were rescinded by other centres of power in Islamabad. Therefore Mr Zardari has to develop a “consensus of the minimum” in Islamabad before he can embark on the war he has promised. There is no doubt that he is the one politician in the country who has the personal will to face the one challenge among many troubling Pakistan. But alas he is not well liked or trusted because of the allegations of disrepute that cling to him. His enemies are now resorting to forgeries and hoaxes to undermine him in the eyes of the masses he wants to save from Al Qaeda. He also runs the risk of expressing himself too freely, out of proportion to the level of support he enjoys in the country. Notwithstanding all this, however, he deserves to be supported if only because he wants to do exactly what Pakistan needs in order to survive. Above all, he needs his PPP to stand behind him and work hard to deliver his political promises no less than the bread and butter ones to the people. (Daily Times)