AP Interview: Pakistan’s president says door open to negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban

By Paisley Dodds, AP
Friday, August 6, 2010

AP Interview: Zardari open to Taliban talks

LONDON — President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan said Friday he’s willing to consider negotiations with the Taliban in his country — a statement that came amid accusations he has failed to do enough to tackle terrorism.

Zardari told The Associated Press that his country had never closed the door to talks with the Taliban.

“We never closed the dialogue,” Zardari told the AP, skirting the question of when talks could actually resume. “We had an agreement, which they broke. (Talks will resume) whenever they feel we’re strong enough and they can’t win, because they won’t win. It will be a painful difficult task, but defeat is not an option for us.”

Last year, Pakistan’s government struck a deal with the Taliban in the Swat Valley that gave them effective control over the region. The militants did not abide by the agreement and moved into another region, prompting an all out offensive by the Pakistani army.

Still, some Islamist politicians and their supporters support the idea of talking with the Taliban. They typically share the aims of the movement in wanting an Islamist state free from U.S. influence.

The United States and Pakistan’s other Western allies have been urging the country to continue fighting the Pakistani Taliban, not talk to them. The movement has been behind dozens of bloody attacks inside Pakistan that have killed thousands over the last three years.

What the West wants is for Pakistan to expand and go after other groups, including the Afghan Taliban sheltering on their soil.

The Pakistani Taliban, which is loosely based in the tribal regions close to the Afghan border, was involved in the failed Times Square car bombing and the suicide attack on a CIA base in December in Afghanistan that killed seven CIA employees. It has links with al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban fighting across the border in Afghanistan.

Over the last four years, Pakistan has tried negotiating with militant groups operating in the northwest. But the truces have quickly broken down and typically allowed them to regroup and emerge stronger.

Friday’s comments came after talks with Prime Minister David Cameron — roughly a week after the British leader ignited a diplomatic row by accusing Pakistan of exporting terrorism during a trip to the country’s nuclear rival, India.

Cameron and India discussed ways to boost trade, cooperation in the fight against terrorism, the situation in Afghanistan and how to help people affected by recent floods that have killed some 1,500 people — the worst floods in some 80 years.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a banned charity with alleged links to the Mumbai, India, terror attacks, is reportedly helping Pakistani flood victims — raising questions about the government’s pledge to crack down on the outfit and about the leadership of Zardari, widower of slain Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Zardari rejected Cameron’s criticism that Pakistan wasn’t doing enough to combat terrorism, asserting in an interview with France’s Le Monde that the U.S.-led coalition had lost the battle against the Taliban after failing to win over the Afghan people — a claim that the White House swiftly rejected.

Describing Friday’s talks as productive, both leaders said they had committed to boosting strategic and cooperative ties.

“Whether it is keeping troops safe in Afghanistan or keeping people safe on the streets of Britain, that is a real priority for my government, and somewhere where, with Pakistan, we are going to work together in this enhanced strategic partnership,” Cameron said.

Zardari described Pakistan’s alliance with the UK as unbreakable.

“This is a friendship that will never break, no matter what happens,” Zardari said. “Storms will come and storms will go, and Pakistan and Britain will stand together and face all the difficulties with dignity … we will make sure that the world is a better place for our coming generations.”

Pakistan is one of Britain’s most important allies in fighting terrorism. Nearly 1 million people of Pakistani origin live in Britain, and Pakistani intelligence has been crucial in several terror investigations, including the 2005 suicide attacks that killed 52 London commuters and a 2006 trans-Atlantic airliner plot. The ringleader of the 2005 suicide bombings in London and several others reportedly received terror training in Pakistan.

Although Pakistan has lost some 2,500 of its security forces during battles against insurgents and has seen near constant terror attacks, analysts believe elements in Pakistan’s intelligence service remain sympathetic to militants.

The U.S. State Department said Thursday that al-Qaida’s core membership in Pakistan, along with affiliates in Africa and Yemen, posed the most dangerous terrorist threat to the United States and its interests abroad. It said the terror network had expanded through affiliate groups.

Wikileaks, the self-described online whistle-blower, also recently posted leaked U.S. military documents alleging Pakistan’s unwillingness to sever its historical ties to the Taliban and alleging that some elements in Pakistan were working with militants.

One British official said Friday that the intelligence relationship with Pakistan remained a challenge because of divisions and instability within the government.

“This is a key relationship but not one without difficulties,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his job.

Zardari has headed a coalition government since unseating Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The ex-military leader was in power-sharing talks with Benazir Bhutto shortly before her assassination at a political rally in December 2007.

Plagued by allegations of corruption and money laundering, Zardari hasn’t enjoyed the same support as some members of the Bhutto clan — the most popular being Bhutto’s father, Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged after his ouster as president of Pakistan.

Analysts predict Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party will also suffer during the next national elections in 2013 because of his low approval ratings and the severe challenges currently facing the country.

Associated Press Writers Danica Kirka in London and Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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