SPIEGEL Interview with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari 'Nuclear Weapons Are Not Kalashnikovs'

The West is concerned about the stability of Pakistan. SPIEGEL spoke with President Asif Ali Zardari, 53, about failed peace talks with the Taliban, the possible whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and the safety of his country's nuclear arsenal.

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, the Taliban is advancing deeper and deeper into the heart of Pakistan. Does your army lack the will or the capability to effectively combat the extremists?

Pakistani army vehicles moving into the Swat Valley in a recent offensive against the Taliban.

Pakistani army vehicles moving into the Swat Valley in a recent offensive against the Taliban.

Foto: AFP

Zardari: Neither the one nor the other. Swat itself has a particular nature -- its physical boundaries limit our action and capabilities. We had a similar situation in Bajaur along the border to Afghanistan. There, too, we went in with F-16s, tanks, heavy artillery and our forces. At the time, 800,000 people lived in the region, and 500,000 were displaced by the fighting. What we really wanted, though, was for the local population to stay and help resist the Taliban on their land. In the case of Swat, the Taliban used the population as human shields. A more aggressive offensive would have caused greater civilian casualties. For us, the concept of a policy of dialogue has always applied. War is not the solution to every kind of problem.

SPIEGEL: The peace agreement you supported with militant Islamists in Swat Valley just failed like others before it. The Taliban didn't give up their arms as agreed to in the deal. Are deals with extremists a realistic strategy for peace?

Zardari: During negotiations, we try to differentiate between copycats or criminals and the hardcore. It is an ongoing insurgency which takes time to finish. We go in with our troops, we talk, we retreat, we pull back, and then the Taliban goes on a new offensive. It is a drawn-out issue and there is no encyclopaedia one can turn to for answers. I would advise you to read about the Afghan wars. It's the way the Taliban, who are Pashtuns, fight: They take you on and then they melt into the mountains. And you often can't tell who is who or what they are up to. These men are like old Indian chiefs in the US who didn't want to recognize the fact that, by then, they were ruled by American laws.

SPIEGEL: The chief Taliban negotiator in Swat, Sufi Mohammed, claims that democracy is opposed to Islam. So what are the foundations for a treaty?

Zardari: When he refuses to recognize Pakistan's constitution, he is breaking the terms of the peace deal. That gives our negotiators and the populace the support they need to take him on. If the deal doesn't work, then parliament will have to decide on it again. That's democracy and, as you can see, it works.

SPIEGEL: In the meantime, the army has entered into battle against the Taliban. Is it not just a bogus operation in order to quiet a concerned West?

Zardari: It is a large-scale operation. Altogether, more than 100,000 Pakistani troops are operating in the region. Of course we also have a comprehensive strategy and a plan for reconstruction.

SPIEGEL: The Taliban is increasingly calling on the poor to follow them and to chase away the landlords and feudal lords. Are the Islamists in the process of transforming themselves into a social movement that pits Pakistan's underprivileged against the rich elite, who have opposed land reform?

Zardari: I don't see that. In regions of the northwest border provinces, there is no feudalism because there is no land available that would be sufficient for agriculture -- it is all mountainous terrain. There are old families and there is a tribal chief system that relies on tribal laws that has been indigenous for centuries. The Taliban have superiority of numbers and arms and are more aggressive, so they sometimes overpower the local authority.

SPIEGEL: Why don't you move some of the troop divisions you have stationed on the eastern border with India to the northwest border, where there is clearly a greater need?

Zardari: Both borders are of equal importance. The fact that the Indians recently increased their troop presence on the border creates a little concern. We react appropriately and we understand our country better than outsiders. This year we have already killed many foreign fighters and even more local attackers. Our opponents have incurred heavy losses -- this is a serious battle.

SPIEGEL: The Taliban in Swat Valley have invited Osama bin Laden to live with them and they have offered to protect him from the Pakistani army and the Americans. What will you do if he accepts their offer?

Zardari: It would be a great gesture if Osama bin Laden were to come out into the open in order to give us a chance of catching him. The question right now is whether he is alive or dead. The Americans have told me they don't know. They are much better informed and they have been looking for him for a much longer time. They have got more equipment, more intelligence, more satellite eavesdropping equipment and more resources on the ground in Afghanistan, and they say they have no trace of him. Our own intelligence is of the same opinion. Presumably, he does not exist anymore, but that has not been confirmed.

SPIEGEL: The relationship between the democratic government in Islamabad and the traditionally dominant army has never been an easy one. Do you trust your army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and the notorious ISI secret service?

Zardari: It is a trustful working relationship and I am well enough informed. My party, the Pakistan People's Party, and its allies have the majority and we will see things through. At the moment I see no danger of a military coup.

SPIEGEL: Why do you leave the elimination of top terrorists in the Pakistani tribal areas to the Americans, whose drone attacks are extremely unpopular amongst the populace? Why don't you handle this yourselves?

Zardari: If we had the drone technology, then we would. It would be a plus. We have always said that we don't appreciate the way the Americans are handling it. We think it is counterproductive. But it is mostly happening in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan -- for all intents and purposes no man's land.

SPIEGEL: What are you hoping will happen during your visit with US President Barack Obama this week?

Zardari: That is a million dollar question. And I am hoping the answer will be billions of dollars, because that is the kind of money I need to fix Pakistan's economy. The idea is to request that the world appreciate the sensitivity of Pakistan and the challenges it faces and to treat us on par with General Motors, Chrysler and Citibank.

SPIEGEL: The Americans currently view a nuclear-armed Pakistan as the world's most dangerous country. Your wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated by terrorists, feared that your country's nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists. Do you share this fear?

Zardari: If democracy in this country fails, if the world doesn't help democracy -- then any eventuality is a possibility. But as long as democracy is there, there is no question of that situation arising. All your important installations and weaponry are always under extra security. Nuclear weapons are not Kalashnikovs -- the technology is complicated, so it is not as if one little Taliban could come down and press a button. There is no little button. I want to assure the world that the nuclear capability of Pakistan is in safe hands.

Interview conducted by Susanne Koelbl
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