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Pakistan's pants are on fire: Top US official

May 06, 2009 08:59 IST

Gary Ackerman, current chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, charged the Pakistani establishment with maintaining a lackadaisical approach towards the worsening scenario in the country.

During a hearing on the Obama Administration's AfPak strategy and its envisaged implementation featuring Richard Holbrooke, Ackerman said, "Let's say that your pants were on fire. You would have to do two things to survive: first, you would have to recognise that the agonising pain that you feel was the result of your pants being on fire. Second, you'd have to do something about it before you lost the ability to do something about it."

"Let me be blunt. Pakistan's pants are on fire. That's bad of course, but things are actually much, much worse. Pakistan's leaders, rather than recognising and moving to address the urgent danger to their Constitution and country, instead seem convinced that if left alone or attacked piecemeal, the Islamist flame will simply burn itself out."

Ackerman said, "That hope is, at best, folly."

"Tragically," he bemoaned, "neither President Zardari nor former Prime Minister Sharif appear to recognise the scope and seriousness of the crisis that their country is in or of the necessity of setting their personal or party political fortunes aside in order to meet the danger."

While acknowledging that Zardari "has said the right things regarding counter-terrorism about how to fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban," and that "it's Pakistan's fight as well," the senior lawmaker argued that "in practice, the government's response has been slow, weak, and ineffective as recent events have shown."

Taking a hefty swipe at Sharif, Ackerman said that "while Sharif's long-standing ties to Islamist political parties could enable him to persuade Pakistani public of the need to confront the Taliban, his public downplaying of the Taliban threat raises serious questions about his commitment to fight the insurgents."

He warned that "historically, one could expect that if the political situation remains as unstable as it is now, and if neither leader moves beyond the narrow political concerns, that the Pakistani military might again emerge as the only institution capable of saving the state."

But he added, "I fear however, that this time might be different. Even now with insurgents a mere hour's drive from the capital, I suspect that among the senior officers of the Pakistani military in particular, those with connections to the ISI that bedrock belief is still that Pakistan's real enemy is India remains untouched by events."

Ackerman asserted, "Pakistan's government, it's military, and most importantly its people, must come to realise that the militants and terrorists they nurtured and supported for decades to fight in Kashmir and to antagonise India have now turned on them."

He recalled how he "and many other friends of Pakistan have said again and again that the fight against extremists is not just an American fight, nor is it solely an Afghan fight. The fight belonged to Pakistan before and it belongs to Pakistan now."

"I cannot say it more clearly. There is a real and present danger to Pakistan's survival, but it comes from inside, not outside the country," Ackerman said, and added: "The fire is real, and they need to respond."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC