The Washington Times - May 7, 2009, 12:19PM

One of the chief complaints among U.S. government and military officials about the Pakistani government is that they have not regarded the Taliban as a serious threat, which has allowed militants to seize territory in recent weeks as close as 60 miles to Islamabad, the capital.

All of this threatens U.S. security because al Qaeda uses the areas controlled by the Taliban, inside Pakistan and Afghanistan, as safe havens in which they can move freely and set up training camps and recruit operatives.

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Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari gave some expression to his feelings about the Taliban Tuesday during this exchange with Wolf Blitzer on CNN.

BLITZER: Are your nuclear weapons safe?

ZARDARI: Definitely safe. First of all, they are in safe hands. B, there is a command and control system under the president of Pakistan. And Buner, like you say, as the crow flies, these mountains are 60, 70 miles from Islamabad. They’ve always been there and there has been fighting there before. There will be fighting there again and there will always be an issue of people in those mountains who we’ve been taking on.

BLITZER: Because the world is worried if the Taliban or associated groups were to take over.

ZARDARI: It doesn’t work like that. They can’t take over.

BLITZER: Why can’t they take over?

ZARDARI: We have a 700,000 Army. How could they take over?

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday gave an articulate and helpful explanation of how and why Zardari’s dismissive mention that there has always been fighting in these parts of his country is no longer a trifle.

Clinton was speaking to reporters at the White House after meeting with Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and in advance of the president’s meetings with the two leaders (here’s my story on the results of those meetings).

Here’s what she said:

“There have been areas of Pakistan that have been ungoverned for a very long time. The British Empire did not govern them; no Pakistani government, civilian or military, attempted to govern them; and they were basically left alone, and they left the central government alone — it was kind of a unspoken agreement.

“But what nobody bargained for was foreign fighters and foreign money and a foreign ideology that would in some way link up disparate elements within these regions into a network, a syndicate, if you will, of extremist groups. And I think that has changed — that’s another one of the paradigm shifts. You know, you could leave those folks alone and they took care of their own business, but that was fine, we were okay in Lahore and Islamabad and Karachi and other places. But as they became more aggressive, and as they kind of broke out of the traditional model of how they had stayed close to home and basically controlled their own surroundings, that produced a new challenge.”

Clinton cited a “change in attitude that we’re seeing in the Pakistani military and intelligence services, and in the civilian government” toward this problem, but Zardari’s comments on CNN don’t seem to indicate a high level of concern about the Taliban.

— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times

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