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Zardari changes his tune in Washington

May 11, 2009 20:27 IST

Two days after saying that he did not consider India a threat to Pakistan and it was the internal terrorist threat from within that is of concern, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was splitting hairs saying the larger threat from India and the so-called existential internal threat as the US has continued to describe it, were different.

Appearing on NBC's Sunday 'Meet the Press' program, Zardari asked if he considers the Taliban a bigger threat today, said, "I consider it a different... (threat). India is a country, and Pakistan is a state... with two states, which... in fact, Pakistan stemmed out of the subcontinent -- out of India. So, it's a different relationship. It's a different context."

On Friday, Zardari had said, "Well, I am already on record. I have never considered India a threat. I have considered India a neighbour, which we want to improve our relationship with. We have had some cold times and we have had some hard times with them. We have gone to war thrice, but democracies are always trying to improve relationships.'

Asked who is in control of Pakistan -- whether it was him or the country's military brass, the Pakistani President said, "I think the military is in control of their hemisphere and I am in control of the whole country."

He said the army cannot overrule him, but "I can overrule them."

When reminded that he had been overruled by the army when he had wanted the ISI Chief General Pasha to go to India after the Mumbai terror attacks, Zardari said, "No, it was not overruled by the military. They thought it was too soon. And, eventually we offered for the intelligence chiefs to meet."

Zardari denied there was a view in Pakistan now that it was important to keep the Taliban 'around for a rainy day' as a bulwark against India's influence in Afghanistan. "I don't think so, I don't think so," he kept repeating.

"It was part of your past and our past and the ISI and CIA created them together," he argued. "I can find you 10 books and 10 philosophers and 10 write-ups on that -- what you did and you didn't do."

When it was pointed out that after 9/11, Pakistan had been playing a double-game as many analysts and a recent in-depth report in the New York Times had contended, straddling both sides to receive massive American largesse in terms of economic and military aid and also maintaining the Taliban for strategic depth against India and other extremist groups for its continuing proxy war in Kashmir, Zardari said, "You tell me. I was in prison by the same dictator you were supporting (former President Pervez Musharraf). In fact, I lost my wife on his watch and I spent five years in his prison."

He argued that "General Musharraf may have had a mind-set to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds, but certainly not on our watch. We don't have that thought process at all."

Asked if he considers the Taliban an "existential threat" to Pakistan as President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and several other senior administration officials have described it, the Pakistani leader, who met with Obama in a trilateral summit with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House on Wednesday, said the Taliban was a threat to the whole world.

"I consider the philosophy of Taliban a threat to the world -- not just to Pakistan and your country (the US)," he told the interviewer. "But, I feel it's a larger threat. They start from the Horn of Africa and come down all the way to Pakistan. They don't evolve from Pakistan and go up to come down."

And, apparently, not drawing a distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Zardari reiterated, "We need to find a strategy where the world gets together against this threat because it's not Pakistan specific, it's not Afghanistan specific.'

"Like I said, it's all the way from the Horn of Africa. You've had attacks in Spain, you've had attacks in Britain, you've had attacks in America, you've had attacks in Africa, Saudi Arabia. So, the world needs to understand that this is the new challenge of the 21st century and this is a new war."

Zardari acknowledged that there was certainly a war with the Taliban inside of Pakistan, but that it wasn't just Afghanistan's war or Pakistan's war, "it is a war of our existence. We've been fighting this war much before they attacked 9/11."

"They are a kind of cancer created by both of us -- Pakistan and America and the world. We got together, we created this cancer to fight the superpower (the erstwhile Soviet Union) and then we went away -- rather you (the US) went away without finding a cure for it. And now, we've both come together to find a cure for it and we are looking for one."

Zardari said that eliminating the Taliban "is a joint responsibility. I think it's a joint responsibility of all the democracies of the world."

On the question of the number of troops his government has deployed on the western front to fight the Taliban, he said, "Three times the amount of troops you have battling them in Afghanistan. That's 125,000 w have on ground."

But when informed that Pakistan has a military force in excess of 650,000 and that the Obama Administration has been pushing Islamabad to move troops from its eastern border with India to its western border because the Taliban posed a much greater threat and that massing troops on the border with India had been described as "misguided" by President Obama, Zardari retorted, "There is a point of view that more men might improve the situation, but that's something it is still disputed by our military analysts."

"We don't think the presence of more troops... You must remember 650,000 personnel-strong army doesn't mean they are all infantry. The fighting brigade is the infantry -- the teeth of the army."

But, he said that all of Pakistan's army was not infantry. 'They are tank divisions, they are truck drivers, they are other gunners, etc. So, we have an infantry of 250,000 out of which 125,000 happens to be in those mountains," to fight the Taliban.

This was also in somewhat of a contradiction of his interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on May 5, on the eve of his meeting with President Obama when he had, in dismissing US and the international fears that Pakistan would be overrun by the Taliban, dismissed such concern, boasting that "It doesn't work like that. They can't take over. We have a 700,000 army. How can they take over?"

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC