AP Interview: Pakistani leader seeks new US policy

By: AP
By: AP

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) -- Pakistan's leader said Monday he expects President-elect Barack Obama to re-evaluate the need for U.S. military strikes on al-Qaida 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.

The 52-year-old 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-Qaida.

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 believed to have carried out at least 18 missile attacks on suspected militant targets close to the border in Pakistan since August.

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

Zardari said he believed 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.

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, 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.

"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 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-Qaida militants in December 2007 as she campaigned in parliamentary elections.

Zardari took over Bhutto's party after her death and was elected president in August, facing a crushing economic crisis and soaring violence by militants also blamed for attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

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," Zardari said.

Washington rarely comments on the strikes, but Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said last week that the recent attacks had killed three top extremists leaders.

According to a report Monday in The New York Times, the U.S. military has also conducted nearly a dozen secret operations against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups in Pakistan, Syria and other countries since 2004.

Citing anonymous U.S. officials, the Times story said the operations were authorized by a broad classified order that then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld signed and President Bush approved in spring 2004. The order gave the military authority to attack al-Qaida anywhere in the world and to conduct operations in countries that were not at war with the U.S.

In one mission in 2006, Navy SEALs raided a suspected terrorist compound in Pakistan's tribal areas, the Times reported.

A Defense Department spokesman had no comment Sunday night on the Times report.

Pakistan insists it is taking on the militants, pointing to a military offensive in the Bajur 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," said Zardari. "We used the force of the government and they (the militants) realized that there is a force here, that the people of Pakistan are to be reckoned with."

Zardari also inherited an economy battered by high inflation, a plunging currency and desperately short of foreign currency reserves needed to avoid defaulting on some $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.

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 want 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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