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Zardari Assesses War on Taliban, Appeals for Aid

May 8, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari describes his country's offensive against the Taliban and other militant threats, and calls for more aid in this new "war of the world."
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TRANSCRIPT

MARGARET WARNER: President Zardari, thanks for being with us.

PAKISTANI PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: Thank you for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: Now your Army has launched this major offensive in the Swat Valley. What is the state of play right now? How much progress has the Army made?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: I think the last count we’ve managed to dislodge most of the folks from the mountains and the miscreants have lost about 145 people, so that’s 145 of the nasties dead, and we’re still in operation.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, it’s said that there are four-to-5,000 militants in that area. Does that jibe with your numbers?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: Close, not exactly four to five. More to about 3,000. This action has been going on in this region for the last three weeks now. We’ve had some successes earlier and this success is going to be even more effective.

MARGARET WARNER: Your prime minister, yesterday, said the objective was to “eliminate the militants and terrorists.” Now, what does that mean – eliminate?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: That means clearing out the area of the miscreants and bringing life to normalcy.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean, what happens to them? Are you talking about killing them all or driving them somewhere else? If so, where?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: No, we are talking about – this is an offensive, this is war. They – if they can, they kill our soldiers and we do the same.

MARGARET WARNER: But I’m still trying to figure out what eliminate means.

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: Well, I know what you’re trying to figure out. Eliminate means exactly what it means.

MARGARET WARNER: Killing them all.

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: That’s what it means.

Failed peace deal with militants

MARGARET WARNER: Now, your government agreed to a peace deal with these militants back in February. Is that deal now off?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: The deal was based upon that the fact that they would bring peace and lay down the arms. They refuse to lay down arms and they did not bring peace to the region. So yes, you can say that the deal is off.

MARGARET WARNER: So is your government committed now to essentially re-establishing the civilian government - the national and provincial government - without the Taliban running the show up there as they have been?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: They were never running the show; they were there - there was a presence of the Taliban. We were there and we had - you know this is the third operation in Swat. We have encountered them before and we had an agreement which failed - it did not work. So now, they have to be eliminated.

MARGARET WARNER: But is it conceivable that if the Taliban were to say, okay, now we're ready to abide by the terms of the deal, that would still go forward?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: No, I don't think so. I don't think so.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you now about the refugees. A quarter of a million have fled just in the last week or two, and the U.N. thinks it will go up to half a million. Who is responsible for these displaced people?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: The government of Pakistan - we are responsible, and we are being helped by the United States and we are being helped by the United Nations and other donor agencies in the region. But by and large, we are responsible for them.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the international aid groups, with all due respect, say they aren't getting enough assistance from your government. I'm sure you're overwhelmed, but - and they also say they are not able to get into some of the conflict zones to help. Is anything going to change in that regard?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: We can't have the aid donors going in there and getting casualties on their ones, so it's a little precarious, a little difficult situation, but the moment that it's settled down, then we will allow to get - to go there at the moment the situation and the people have come out of the area. So we are looking after them in camps. Most of them have gone to their own extended families. And that's the way it is playing out.

Fighting country's adversaries

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you now about your broader commitment to fighting the militants. The Obama administration had hoped, when you came here, you would tell them that you're ready to move more of Pakistan's army and other forces from your eastern front with India toward the west, where the greater militant threat exists. They say you've made no such pledge. Is that true, and if so, why?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: The fact is that we have moved more troops today and yesterday and the day before. And we move them according to the requirement. We already have 125,000 personnel there. So when we need to replace them, we need to improve upon their strength, we do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Which adversary do you think now is the greatest threat to your country? Is it your historic rival, India, or is it the militants?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: Well, I'm already on record, I've never considered India a threat - said I've always considered India a neighbor, which we want to improve our relationship with. We've had some cold times and we've had some hard times with them. We've gone to war thrice. But democracies are always trying to improve relationships.

MARGARET WARNER: So if so, why aren't you able to move even more forces westward, as at least U.S. commanders think you need to do?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: Answer is that we have done some.

MARGARET WARNER: Another concern here in Washington is the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal as the Taliban has appeared to take more territory in the areas that might house some of these nuclear sites. How confident are you that they are secure, and what makes you confident?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: They have not been able to take any area from Pakistan. We have not surrendered any inch to any force ever in the past, nor in the future, nor in the present. That one mountain has been taken over by an ex-group of fighters does not mean that I've conceded that mountain to them. No, they are there. My forces, as soon as they get there, they get them cleared.

MARGARET WARNER: So I still don't get the answer to my question, which has to do with the nuclear arsenal.

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: The nuclear arsenal has no relevance in the war against the Talibans. There is no way they can get their hands on it, first. And all the sort of relevant authorities are satisfied that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is in safe hands.

MARGARET WARNER: And are you in charge of that nuclear arsenal?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: Yes, ma'am. I am the supreme commander, so they do come under the command of the president.

Meetings with U.S. officials

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, the meetings in Washington, of course. Many Pakistanis, especially in the military, feel the U.S. abandoned Pakistan after the Soviets left Afghanistan. Do you leave these meetings now confident that you have what I think President Obama called a "sustained commitment," a lasting commitment from the U.S. to Pakistan?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: The insecurities are always there in some institutions and some concerns always raised about that, but we - I and democracy of Pakistan is quite assured that the Americans and the world is committed to the war against Taliban. They're a challenge to every government, and no government can afford to disengage.

MARGARET WARNER: The members of Congress have been asked to vastly increase aid, not just military aid, but civilian aid to Pakistan. But many members want to attach some conditions on how it's spent - certainly, some level of greater accountability. Are you comfortable with that?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: Accountability, I have never been uncomfortable with, ever. Accountability is fine.

MARGARET WARNER: Several members said they just weren't sure that you recognized the severity of the threat that your government faces from the militants and also from the Pakistani people's own kind of unhappiness right now. Do you feel you face an existential threat?

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: I feel the other way around. I feel that the world and the American Congress and the people do not understand the threat they face and the world faces from this threat, because this is a threat I lost my late wife to. This is a threat - this is the same mindset I lost my father-in-law to. This is the same mindset I've lost thousands of my friends to, my party workers to. So I feel we do understand the threat.

The way I look at it is that you've given more aid to AIG than you've given to Pakistan in the last 10 years. So your one institution requires more attention than 180 million people and this war of the world. So it's a more dangerous war than the world has ever fought before.

MARGARET WARNER: President Zardari, thank you so much.

PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: Thank you, ma'am. You are a tough lady.