- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When U.S. policy-makers and lawmakers do not understand Pakistan - which is often - they should listen. They could do much worse than to listen to Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower and the co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party. Columnist Harlan Ullman’s exclusive interview with the influential Mr. Zardari on today’s Op-Ed page can be read as a brief for American patience with this complex, volatile nation. Of course, the subtext is equally noteworthy. As one of Pakistan’s most powerful political figures, Mr. Zardari is effectively asking for an arm’s-length distance and material support as the government attempts to negotiate with militants and regional power brokers in the wild North-West Frontier Province and nearby areas. Washington would much rather hear that no such negotiations are taking place, since, it hopes, this would mean no enlargement of Pakistan’s already unacceptable sanctuary for terrorists. But some finer distinctions between who is a “militant” and who is not - the latter being people that Pakistan and the United States can live with - are in order.

The same week that major Western media outlets report a series of sensitive and controversial Pakistani negotiations with Taliban militants, Mr. Zardari pledges that “the government of Pakistan will never negotiate with terrorists, but we fully intend to engage tribal leaders who have been abandoned by the previous government and have been co-opted by extremists by intimidation and coercion.” It is important to note the choice of words. These “tribal leaders,” largely Pashtuns, are often lumped in the category of “militant” in much Western reporting. We are rightly wary of any negotiations with Taliban. But Mr. Zardari wants the West to begin to see the difference between its own justifiable chief concerns about Taliban fighters and al Qaeda, and Pakistan’s own fight against an insurgency that overlaps with these groups but does not consist solely of them.

Meanwhile, though, the tension in Washington seems to be ratcheting in the opposite direction. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, who recently returned from a three-day trip to the region, is questioning the assistance the United States already provides. Taliban militants and arms are flowing into Afghanistan, Mr. Levin rightly notes. But is the corrective a cutoff of aid? Divergent as Mr. Zardari’s platform is from President Pervez Musharraf’s, he would not think so. He calls for proactive engagement in support of the new government’s social and economic reforms in addition to its military cooperation, not in place of it.

The United States needs assurances that Pakistan is not handing the Taliban and related groups even greater sanctuary in the region than they already enjoy - sanctuary to worsen infiltration in neighboring Afghanistan or further destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan. But, at the same time, it must better understand the differences between the many actors in this very important drama.

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