- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2017

President Trump should quickly appoint a high-level envoy to South Asia to underscore U.S. leadership in the region and seize an opportunity missed by the Obama administration to coordinate a top-level response to the regional terrorist threat, said former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

Mr. Zardari, the only elected Pakistani president ever to have completed a full term in office, told The Washington Times in an interview that Mr. Trump’s critics should not dismiss him out of hand but rather give him a chance to make his mark in the region, beset by conflicts in Afghanistan, jihadi terrorist movements and the increasingly tense Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir.

“It’s too early,” Mr. Zardari said on the eve of Mr. Trump’s inauguration last week. “Wait for the first 90 days at least, and then we see how the cookie crumbles, or talks and walks.

“The man has managed to get a majority in states where it was never imagined that the Democrats could lose,” he said. “So how do we underestimate him?”

It’s a sobering question from a man whose own journey through politics might best be described as Shakespearean. Mr. Zardari spent 11 years in prison on corruption charges. It was in 2008 — just months after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, his wife of 20 years — that Mr. Zardari spearheaded a coalition that forced Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf from power before rising to the presidency in Islamabad.

Mr. Zardari filled a top-level suite at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in downtown Washington on Thursday with the charisma of a man who knows a thing or two about withstanding criticism and pursuing his own vision. His advice for Mr. Trump, he said, is simple: “[Do] what [President] Obama never did — Obama never had proper interaction with any Pakistani chief executive.”

Mr. Zardari, who met with Mr. Obama at the White House in 2011, said he was not interested in openly criticizing the outgoing U.S. president. However, his comments sounded at times like an indictment of Mr. Obama’s handling of what has, for more than two decades, been one of Washington’s most vexing and complex foreign relationships.

Tensions between Washington and Islamabad soared to new heights during Mr. Obama’s tenure, particularly after the clandestine 2011 U.S. Special Forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The Obama administration struggled to work with Pakistan toward ending the 16-year war in neighboring Afghanistan while backing current Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s campaign to wage war against jihadis on Pakistan’s side of the border.

Activist U.S. role

What is needed today, Mr. Zardari said, is a U.S. president who can breathe new life into the relationship by realizing that the wars against extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan are the same — and are no different from those being waged against the Islamic State and al Qaeda-aligned groups from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Libya.

“We’re losing the battle of minds against extremists in Afghanistan, we’ve lost it in Pakistan, we’ve lost it in Syria, we’ve lost it in Yemen, we’ve lost it in Iraq, we’ve lost it Libya, we’ve lost it everywhere,” the 61-year-old former president said.

“I would humbly request the new president of America to sit back and interact with world leaders — present and past leaders and regional leaders — and think forward toward a policy which is doable,” he said. “That would entail, basically, confidence-building between the different countries in the region and meaningful actions” toward defeating the extremist mindset.

He said U.S. leadership reached a high point in 2009 when Mr. Obama appointed Richard C. Holbrooke to be a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but that the administration lost focus after Holbrooke’s death a year later from heart complications.

Mr. Trump should appoint an envoy like Holbrooke early in his term and not allow Washington partisanship to influence the move, Mr. Zardari said.

The former Pakistani president suggested that a good pick might be Anne W. Patterson, a career Foreign Service officer and a former ambassador to Pakistan and Egypt.

Ms. Patterson could carry the kind of diplomatic weight that regional leaders hoped Holbrooke would bring — the kind of weight that results in “executive level” dialogues that are more robust “than Obama had,” Mr. Zardari said.

“With the world being as it is, with the mindset of terrorism as the new war in the world,” he said, “the least [the U.S.] can do is sit down with us and have a long, drawn-out strategy, which we can work on together to fight this mindset.”

Beyond the Trump presidency

Mr. Zardari, co-chairman of the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party, was in Washington to participate in Mr. Trump’s inaugural festivities.

He offered a range of comments on issues beyond U.S. policy for Pakistan.

He blamed India for the failure to resolve the dispute over Kashmir and argued that Washington and other international powers have a responsibility to “nudge” New Delhi toward a deal.

He lamented the status of peace talks involving international powers, the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The “warlords” who dominate the Taliban, he said, “don’t want to fight in an election; they don’t want to fight in a democratic way.”

“Dialogue is the only democratic form of moving forward, but obviously it hasn’t succeeded in the last 10 years,” he said.

He offered a guarded assessment of Pakistan’s political landscape.

Mr. Zardari said he is working toward building his party’s base ahead of elections next year. He declined to comment on whether he would seek the prime minister post.

But he openly criticized the current prime minister, saying Mr. Sharif hasn’t played a constructive role in the nation’s parliament and has failed to put forward a coherent foreign policy.

“The man hasn’t even appointed a foreign minister,” Mr. Zardari said. “He’s got two aides on foreign affairs, but he’s got no foreign minister. He doesn’t have a point man. You’ve got to have a point man.”

When Mr. Zardari’s presidency came to a close in 2013, the Pakistani economy was in a tailspin. But he is credited with reducing the once-massive powers of the office of the presidency and pushing to bolster and develop Pakistan’s democratic institutions, which he said remain “young and need time to evolve.”

“In 64 years, for 50 percent of the time we’ve had dictators ruling,” Mr. Zardari said. “Then we’ve had democracies that have never completed their term. Mine was the first that completed its term. And, in spite of the fact that I had reservations on the way the elections were conducted, I accepted the results begrudgingly and I stuck to the position of transferring power — which was the first time that a peaceful transition of power was made.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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