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Pakistan Faces Political, Security Challenges

June 20, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now, Pakistan under pressure. We start with some background narrated by NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: It was one of the more remarkable scenes in Pakistan’s 60-year history as an independent nation. Last March, judges and lawyers took to the streets in protest in the capital, Islamabad, and other cities.

Their upset sprung from the decision by President Pervez Musharraf to fire the country’s chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, on allegations of corruption. Ordinary Pakistanis appeared shocked and angry at the assault on the judiciary, an institution they were counting on to help restore civilian rule after eight years of rule by the military.

General Musharraf came to power in 1999 after staging a military coup and made himself president. His term expires in October. Now, many Pakistanis believe he wanted to remove the independent-minded justice before the Supreme Court began considering the constitutionality of his plan to run for re-election this fall, while maintaining his role as the army chief.

Musharraf promised in 2003 to give up his army position and to move Pakistan back to civilian rule, but has done neither.

Protests have gone on for months and have often been met with harsh government response: 40 people were killed when a protest march took an ugly turn in Karachi last month.

Despite his political troubles at home, his support from the Bush administration has remained strong. American officials call Musharraf a key ally in the war on terrorism. He backed U.S. efforts to overthrow the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan after 9/11. Since then, Pakistan has received more than $10 billion in U.S. aid.

But last year, Musharraf made a deal with tribal chiefs in areas bordering Afghanistan, ostensibly to crack down on the Taliban and al-Qaida in the region. Many critics, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, say instead the arrangement has given the Taliban sanctuary.

In February, Vice President Cheney visited Musharraf to warn that he risked losing U.S. support unless he did more to crack down on al-Qaida and Taliban elements. Still, high-level U.S. officials also regularly reiterate their support for him, the latest, just this week, was Secretary of State Rice.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: We have to recognize that Pakistan has come a very long way since 2001, in its commitment to try and root out extremism, to try to make reforms, educational reforms, reforms on concerns of women, and the like.

SPENCER MICHELS: Later that day, Rice met with Pakistan’s foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, who was in Washington visiting top administration officials and members of Congress.

Protests against the president

Khurshid Kasuri
Pakistani Foreign Minister
People are allowed to protest. How many other countries are there in the Muslim world where people will go out on the issue of a judge where the government doesn't mind?

JIM LEHRER: And Margaret Warner talked with the Pakistani foreign minister yesterday at his Washington hotel.

MARGARET WARNER: Foreign Minister Kasuri, thank you for being with us.

KHURSHID MAHMOOD KASURI, Pakistani Foreign Minister: It's a pleasure to be with you.

MARGARET WARNER: People here are watching with some concern the rising protests in Pakistan and the way President Musharraf is handling them. How serious a challenge to his authority is the situation right now?

KHURSHID MAHMOOD KASURI: Well, this is an election year, and things will happen in an election year all over the world. As far as the robustness of our democratic system is concerned, you can judge from the fact that that's been going on for more than two months. People are allowed to protest. How many other countries are there in the Muslim world where people will go out on the issue of a judge where the government doesn't mind?

MARGARET WARNER: But was your government surprised by the depth of the protests? And in retrospect, was it a mistake to have sacked the chief justice?

KHURSHID MAHMOOD KASURI: Whether it was a mistake or not, you know, one has to have the facts. I'm not the minister for law. But the government has put up a case, which it finds is pretty strong. But that's not the issue; the issue is public reaction that you're talking about.

Now, as far as public reaction is concerned, probably the government had underestimated, because the government thought it was acting according to the constitution. But this is an election year, and government has various options available to it, and I will not go deeply into that. And I think that this will be resolved in a manner that Pakistani democracy becomes stronger.

MARGARET WARNER: So is President Musharraf, do you think, ready to concede on any of the points that the activists are demanding? For example, that, before he run for re-election, he give up his general's uniform, or that he let his leading political rivals or at least leading opposition figures return in time for the elections?

KHURSHID MAHMOOD KASURI: Well, there have been talks of him going on with various political parties. And according to media reports -- because I'm not the minister in charge; I will not pretend to speak more than my own portfolio would suggest -- on the issue of the uniform that you asked me, the constitution allows the president to wear his uniform until the end of 2007. And he has said on many occasions that he will abide by the constitution. Any more concrete answer has to be asked of the president.

Avoiding martial law

Khurshid Kasuri
Pakistani Foreign Minister
I hope we will never resort to martial law. Martial law is unconstitutional. So when he [President Musharraf] has repeatedly said that he will work within the confines of the constitution, I have no reason to doubt that.

MARGARET WARNER: If he makes no concessions, can he ride this out and get himself re-elected somehow without imposing martial law or a state of emergency?

KHURSHID MAHMOOD KASURI: Well, I mean, I hope we will never resort to martial law. Martial law is unconstitutional. So when he has repeatedly said that he will work within the confines of the constitution, I have no reason to doubt that.

So we will have to operate within the constitutional framework that exists. And don't forget: The president has an international stature. He is an asset for Pakistan, and I'm sure he's aware of it. And we live in a globalized world. What happens in America is reported in Pakistan; what happens there is reported here.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you a slightly personal question. You were in the political opposition for years. You were even jailed. You were a major pro-democracy advocate during the previous military government. Do you personally think it is time now, after eight years of rule by a military figure, for General Musharraf to open the door to a more civilian government again?

KHURSHID MAHMOOD KASURI: I strongly believe so, but so does the president. I mean, you asked me a personal question; I'll respond very honestly.

The president when he came, you know, he was welcomed. And there must have been something wrong with our civilian democratic set-up. I won't go into that, because I was a part of it. It's not for me to start judging that; historians will judge, and a lot of Pakistani commentators will give their judgment.

The question is, when you run a country like Pakistan, look at our environment, China on one side, India on the other, Afghanistan, Iran, Gulf, and Central Asia. We are bang in the center. Even if there's a flame anywhere, there are ramifications in our country. And under those circumstances, to have taken the economy to where it is today, our GDP has doubled during the last four or five years.

Controlling the border

Khurshid Kasuri
Pakistani Foreign Minister
I'm not saying our government is perfect, but which government is? But there are in place organizations, civil society organizations, constitutional procedures to check the government.

MARGARET WARNER: The Bush administration has said next to nothing publicly about this whole question of General Musharraf and the protests and what he should do to respond. Privately, is there any different tone?

KHURSHID MAHMOOD KASURI: Your question suggests that they're playing a double game. No, they're not doing that. The content doesn't change at all.

They have full faith in the leadership of President Musharraf. And they've told me repeatedly that they believe when the president says that he is the man who's leading to a transition to civil democracy.

We still have democracy. What does a democracy mean, a free press, an independent judiciary? How many countries are there in the world where people will come out for three months and protest over the sacking of a judge? And then our civil society organizations, our human rights organizations, they don't spare our government.

I'm not saying our government is perfect, but which government is? But there are in place organizations, civil society organizations, constitutional procedures to check the government.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's turn to terrorism. President Musharraf has turned over certain border regions to local tribal chiefs and leaders. And the critics say that that has turned these regions into more of a haven for al-Qaida and Taliban elements. What evidence can you offer that that's not the case, that actually it is working as President Musharraf had intended?

KHURSHID MAHMOOD KASURI: Is Pakistan the only country that has done it? What did your own NATO commander say, General David Richards? He himself had an arrangement of a similar nature with Musa Qala.

Number two, can you win a military battle and lose the battle for hearts and minds? The answer is no, so our strategy is well-thought-out, and I will say it working. You will say, "How?" My response is: We had peace with the tribal elders.

The tribal elders took on foreigners. In fact, about 300 or 400 Uzbeks were killed because their people said, "Lay down your arms. Don't cross the border." And that is a part of the agreement. Well, it's not 100 percent effective. But are you 100 percent effective in Iraq or Afghanistan? We are trying our best.

Pakistan's fight against terrorism

Khurshid Kasuri
Pakistani Foreign Minister
We are doing our best to stop people coming from Afghanistan into Pakistan, although it's primarily the responsibility of NATO-ISAF and Afghan troops. And we are also trying to stop people from going from here.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you also face a new mood on Capitol Hill with the Democrats in control. What do you say to critics on Capitol Hill who argue that Pakistan is not doing enough to fight terrorism, that there are too many elements in the Pakistani military sympathetic to the Taliban?

KHURSHID MAHMOOD KASURI: What I will tell them is, it's deeds, not words, that are important. We've lost about 500 or 600 soldiers dead, which is more than the combined losses of NATO-ISAF. We've got 90,000 troops in an area one-twentieth the size of Afghanistan, and you have half that number. We have 1,000 -- we used to, now we have 1,100 -- inspection posts on the border to stop cross-border movement. You've got about 100.

If people come from Mexico to the United States and vice versa, is Mexico responsible for both? You want Mexicans to stop coming from there, and you have no responsibility. So what are we saying?

We are saying, we are doing our best to stop people coming from Afghanistan into Pakistan, although it's primarily the responsibility of NATO-ISAF and Afghan troops. And we are also trying to stop people from going from here.

When we say, "Here is a poor man's solution," we are going to mine the entire border. You said, "Don't do it." Then, are you serious? Are you trying to find a fall guy, to use the American expression?

Things are hot, but it will become worse if we start distrusting each other. We have to look at our sacrifices and our actions, and this will be the words of a friend to other friends at the Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: Foreign Minister Kasuri, thank you so much.

KHURSHID MAHMOOD KASURI: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure talking to you.