- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan’s president said this week that he expects President-elect Barack Obama to re-evaluate the need for U.S. military strikes on al Qaeda and Taliban targets on Pakistan’s side of the Afghan border.

In an interview with the Associated Press, President Asif Ali Zardari warned that the surge in missile attacks since August was hurting Pakistan’s own fight against the militants - a campaign he said was succeeding nonetheless.

“I think there is definitively going to be a new look at all the issues that have been on the table of the United States, and this is one of the large issues,” said Mr. Zardari, who sat in front of two photos of his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, a U.S.-allied moderate Muslim leader who was killed by suspected al Qaeda militants in December as she campaigned in parliamentary elections.

The 52-year-old Pakistani president is under intense U.S. pressure to take firmer action against militants in the rugged and lawless northwest border zone, a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden and what many consider to be the global front line in the fight against al Qaeda.

In what is seen as a sign of American frustration with Islamabad’s perceived inability to deal with the militants, the U.S. military is thought to have carried out at least 18 missile attacks on suspected militant targets close to the border in Pakistan since August.

The missiles are thought to be fired from unmanned planes launched in Afghanistan, where some 32,000 U.S. troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban insurgency.

Mr. Zardari said he thought Mr. Obama would re-examine that strategy, but acknowledged that the Democrat — who struck a sometimes-hawkish tone on dealing with Pakistan during the election — may continue with the attacks.

Mr. Obama has openly supported U.S. strikes in the lawless and rugged border region and has questioned whether Pakistan has done enough to fight militants despite receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid since 2001.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama said if he is elected, he could launch unilateral attacks on high-value terrorist targets in Pakistan as they become exposed and “if Pakistan cannot or will not act” against them.

The U.S. attacks have killed some militants, but many of the dead have been civilians, including women and children, stoking anger among locals, Pakistani officials say.

“We feel that the strikes are an intrusion on our sovereignty, which are not appreciated by the people at large, and the first aspect of this war is to win the hearts and mind of the people,” Mr. Zardari said.

Pakistan insists it is taking on the militants, pointing to a military offensive in the Bajaur tribal district that began in August and has killed 1,500 suspected insurgents.

“I think from where it was when we took over, we are in a much better place,” Mr. Zardari said. “We used the force of the government, and [the militants] realized that there is a force here, that the people of Pakistan are to be reckoned with.”

Mr. Zardari also inherited an economy battered by high inflation, a plunging currency and desperately short foreign currency reserves needed to avoid defaulting on about $5 billion of sovereign debt due for repayment next year.

The financial crisis was caused in part by the previous administration of President Pervez Musharraf, which subsidized fuel and food as international commodity prices soared last year.

The International Monetary Fund is preparing an emergency loan package for the country, which is also seeking funds from wealthy allies such as the United States, China and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Zardari said there was no chance of “economic meltdown” as some observers have predicted and defended the country’s decision to turn to the IMF, which he said would make the country cut its spending before dispersing the cash.

“I think it’s a difficult pill, but one has to take medicine to get better,” he said. “The IMF wants to spread the risk factor and make sure that people only spend as much they as carry in their pocket, and countries and individuals have the habit of overspending.”

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