Zardari wants peace talks with India, but can he control Pakistan? (Roundup)

May 6th, 2009 - 4:07 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Washington, May 6 (IANS) Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has proposed a fresh peace dialogue with India as several US lawmakers questioned his ability to control Pakistan, with one of them comparing the country to a man whose pants are on fire but who does not realise the danger.
The US says it will continue to press Pakistan to shift its focus from India to the fight against the Taliban and would shape aid to Islamabad to ensure it’s not used to further an arms build-up against India.

Zardari is in Washington to meet US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a trilateral summit Wednesday and Thursday.

Zardari says he proposes to start a fresh peace dialogue with India after the Indian elections are over later this month.

“Democracies have never gone to war. No Pakistani democratic government has gone to war with India. We’ve always wanted peace. We still want peace with India,” Zardari told CNN in an interview Tuesday.

“I’m waiting for the (Indian general) elections to be over so that all of this rhetoric is over and I can start a fresh dialogue with the Indian government,” he said.

Zardari was responding to a question whether what President Barack Obama called Islamabad’s “obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan” was indeed “misguided”.

On US fears that that some of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were at risk of being acquired by the Taliban, Zardari claimed that his country’s nuclear weapons are safe.

“They are in safe hands,” he said.

Several US lawmakers have questioned Zardari’s ability to control Pakistan with one of them comparing the country to a man whose pants are on fire but who does not realise the danger.

When one’s pants are on fire one has to do two things to survive, said Democrat Gary Ackerman as a House panel Tuesday questioned Richard Holbrooke, US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, on America’s strategy for the troubled ally.

“First you have to realise your pants are on fire. Then you have to do something about it,” he said. “Let me be blunt. Pakistan’s pants are on fire… but they seem convinced that if left alone or attacked piecemeal, the Islamist flame will simply burn itself out. That hope is, at best, folly.”

Even now with Taliban insurgents a mere hour’s drive from the capital, Ackerman said he suspected that among the senior officers of the Pakistani military that “bedrock belief is still that Pakistan’s real enemy is India remains untouched by events”.

Holbrooke urged Ackerman and others to speak with Zardari about their concerns while he is in Washington suggesting that the US has overreacted to the situation in Pakistan “when statements of concern became predictions”.

The US should try “to dispel a self-fulfilling sense of pants-on-fire syndrome. It is not a failed state. It is a state under extreme stress,” said Holbrooke.

“We need to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies,” Holbrooke told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday noting that Pakistan’s survival as a moderate, democratic state is critical to US national security.

“We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s support and involvement,” he said.

He sought to reassure lawmakers that the Pakistani government is not on the verge of collapse, but does require greater US backing.

“There is a real and present danger to Pakistan’s survival but it comes from inside and not outside the country,” Holbrooke said.

Democrat Howard Berman, chair of the panel and author of the proposed legislation linking $1.5 billion in annual aid to Pakistan for next five years to ceasing support to any group that has conducted attacks “against the territory of India or the people of India” - among other things - said there was no “rigid or inflexible conditionality” in it.

“We are simply asking the Pakistanis to keep the commitments they have already made to fight the terrorists who threaten our national security and theirs, and that they make some progress doing so, with progress defined very broadly,” he said.

A number of representatives also questioned the effectiveness of aid to Pakistan.

Democrat Gerald Connolly wondered why Zardari did not have enough resources to fight the insurgents when US has already given $12 billion over the last seven years for Pakistan to improve its military.

Holbrooke acknowledged: “Pakistan used a large portion of its resources to build up a military force aimed against India. Pakistan still has more troops on its border with India than on its border with Afghanistan.”

In the context of the terror attacks in Mumbai, 9/11, and the assassination of former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto, Holbrooke said: “We are talking today about an issue that is of direct importance to our national security.”

Asked by Republican Ilena Ros-Lehtinen about Pakistan’s commitment to rooting out militant groups in view of its strategic concern with India, he said: “Pakistan’s not a failed state… But it is a state under enormous social, political and economic pressures. And India is always a factor.”

On Indian leaders and their perception of Pakistan, Holbrooke said since India has been in election campaign: “They have been listening, they’ve been very interested but they have not taken any clear positions at this point.”

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