War in Afghanistan is Destabilising Pakistan, Says President
By Simon Tisdall for The Guardian
The war in Afghanistan is destabilising Pakistan and seriously undermining efforts to restore its democratic institutions and economic prosperity after a decade of military dictatorship, Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, has told the Guardian.
Speaking during an exclusive interview in the imposing presidential residence in Islamabad, Zardari also pointed to widespread concern in Pakistan at the slow pace of efforts to end the Afghan conflict, and said some US politicians showed limited understanding of the impact of American policies.
“Just as the Mexican drug war on US borders makes a difference to Texas and American society, we are talking about a war on our border which is obviously having a huge effect. Only today a suicide bomber has attacked a police compound in Baluchistan. I think it [the Afghan war] has an effect on the entire region, and specially our country,” Zardari said.
Asked about harsh criticism of Pakistan’s co-operation in the “war on terror” published in a White House report last week, Zardari said Pakistan always listened to Washington’s views. But he suggested some members of Congress and the US media did not know what they were talking about when it came to Pakistan.
“The United States has been an ally of Pakistan for the last 60 years. We respect and appreciate their political system. So every time a new parliament comes in, new boys come in, new representatives come in, it takes them time to understand the international situation. Not Obama, but the Congress, interest groups and the media get affected by ‘deadline-itis’ [over ending the Afghan war],” Zardari said.
“I think it is maybe 12 years since America has become engaged in Afghanistan and obviously everybody’s patience is on edge, especially the American public, which is looking for answers. There are no short-term answers and it is very difficult to make the American taxpayer understand.”
With less than three months left before Barack Obama has promised to begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, the White House recriminations reflected the growing pressures on all three governments to agree a workable, long-term strategy. The report complained bitterly that after years of US funding of the Pakistani military, “there remains no clear path towards defeating the insurgency” inside Pakistan.
It criticised as ineffectual Pakistani army operations in some areas of the western tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, which are believed to be used as safe havens by Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida elements.
A congressional panel also weighed in this week, urging the Obama administration to abandon Pakistan in favour of India. “Pakistan is about to go broke or collapse,” said Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat.
Zardari suggested that if that assertion were true, the interventionist policies of the US and other foreign governments in south Asia would be a significant contributory factor. Pakistan had been in a state of “security alert” for several decades, he said.
“Our emphasis has been on security rather than our commerce and we need commerce for our survival.
“We have all the gas in the world waiting to go through to markets in India and the Red Sea but it cannot be brought in until Afghanistan is settled. So Afghanistan is a growth issue for us. I think most of the time, the quantification of the effect of the war is not calculated [by the US].
“Prices are going up, obviously we are a high fuel-importing country, and fuel prices are going up. Because of the war situation, the industry in one of our provinces has practically closed down … When one whole sector is not working, there is an effect on the other sectors.”
According to senior intelligence officials, the “war on terror” has cost the Pakistani economy approximately $68bn (£42bn) since 2001.
More than 33,300 Pakistani civilians and military personnel have been killed or seriously injured. Last year’s record-breaking floods added to the strain on the economy.
Zardari said the security situation was also undercutting efforts to strengthen democratic institutions bypassed or overturned during the military rule of his predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf. “Democracy is evolving. It’s a new democracy. It takes time to bring institutions back. Destroying institutions during a decade of dictatorial regime is easy … So there is a political impact as well as an economic impact.”
Pakistani officials say relations with the US reached a “low ebb” following the recent row over Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis; a CIA drone attack in Pakistan’s tribal areas last month that accidentally killed dozens of civilian elders meeting in a jirga (council), and Pakistan’s suspicions that it is being excluded from discussions about an Afghan peace deal.
Zardari, who is expected to visit Washington next month, said he would ask Obama to share drone technology with Pakistan so future attacks could be planned and directed under a “Pakistani flag”. Although this request had been turned down in the past, he said he was hopeful the Americans would be more receptive this time, given the huge anger and rising anti-American feeling that the drone attacks were causing.
Zardari and other senior government officials said all parties felt a sense of growing urgency about forging an inclusive peace settlement in Afghanistan, but the process must be “Afghan-led”. Pakistan was ready to play its part, consistent with its national interest, they said.
Salman Bashir, Pakistan’s foreign secretary, said: “Everybody is gradually coming round to our point of view that this requires greater diplomatic pressure. There is no military solution in Afghanistan.”