/ 7 April 2009

Zardari: Pakistan fighting for survival

Pakistan is battling Islamist militants for its survival, President Asif Ali Zardari told a visiting United States envoy who urged Pakistan to eliminate militant enclaves on the Afghan border, a newspaper reported on Tuesday.

Richard Holbrooke, special US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, met Zardari late on Monday after arriving from the Afghan capital, Kabul.

”Pakistan is fighting a battle of its own survival,” Zardari’s office quoted him as telling Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairperson of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Pakistan is crucial to US efforts to stabilise neighbouring Afghanistan where a Taliban insurgency has steadily intensified over recent years despite a rising number of US and other foreign soldiers there.

At the same time, attacks by militants across Pakistan are reviving Western concerns about the stability of its nuclear-armed ally.

Zardari, the widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and a year-old coalition government are also struggling to revive an economy propped up by a $7,6-billion International Monetary Fund loan.

Holbrooke is making his first visit to the region since US President Barack Obama announced a new strategy for Afghanistan, focusing more on a regional approach to ending the war.

He and Mullen are due in India later on Tuesday.

In their meeting with Zardari and other senior officials, Holbrooke and Mullen called for effective action to eliminate militant strongholds on northwestern Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, the Dawn newspaper reported.

US commanders say tackling the enclaves in ungoverned ethnic Pashtun tribal lands, from where the Taliban launch attacks into Afghanistan and al-Qaeda plots violence around the world, is vital to success in Afghanistan.

”No pressure”
Pakistan has made widely criticised, and usually short-lived, peace deals with some militant factions and Zardari told the visiting Americans his government would pursue dialogue with those who gave up violence.

”The government would not succumb to any pressure by militants, however, a process of dialogue should be initiated with those who lay down their arms,” he said.

Critics say peace pacts merely give the militants space to regroup.

Pakistan for years used Islamists to further foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan and the divided Kashmir region, and some US officials say they suspect Pakistani security agents still maintain contacts with some militants.

Obama said last week the release of additional US aid to Pakistan would depend on how it tackled terrorism.

Since last year the US has stepped up strikes by unmanned drone aircraft against al-Qaeda and Taliban militants on the Pakistani side of the border.

Pakistan calls the strikes violations of its sovereignty and says the civilian casualties they inevitably cause inflame anti-US sentiment, complicating its effort to fight militancy.

Taliban militant commanders say recent violence in Pakistan have been in retaliation for the US drone attacks and they have threatened more violence in Pakistani cities unless the drone strikes stop. — Reuters