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Balancing Regional, U.S. Interests In Pakistan

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Balancing Regional, U.S. Interests In Pakistan

Balancing Regional, U.S. Interests In Pakistan

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. If the United States is going to win the war in Afghanistan, it must have the support of Pakistan. This year, Pakistan elected a new government, and last month, a new president, Asif Ali Zardari, replaced Washington's old ally, Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan is growing more violent and unstable. In part four of our series on the war in that region, NPR's Philip Reeves asks if Pakistan's new government is strong enough to weather the storm and what happens if the answer is no.

(Sound bite of Pakistani music)

PHILIP REEVES: The other day, Asif Ali Zardari made his first speech as president to Pakistan's parliament. He sounded nervous as he plowed through a script that contains some well-known lines.

President ASIF ALI ZARDARI (Pakistan): I have a dream for Pakistan. My dream is to free this great country from the shackles of poverty, hunger, terrorism, and disunity.

REEVES: The parliamentarians thumped their desks in approval. Many of them are from Zardari's party. Yet, no one was in any doubt about how difficult it will be for Zardari to make his dream become reality. Pakistan is 61 years old. Its people have always talked about the country as a nation struggling to survive even in the good times.

Now, they really mean it. The economy is in collapse. The war in Afghanistan has spread into Pakistan. Large chunks of Pakistan are out of the government's control. Islamic militants have launched a suicide bombing campaign, killing some 1,200 Pakistanis since the middle of last year. International aid officials and diplomats are wrapping themselves in more layers of security and sending their children out of the county.

Some influential voices are now expressing alarm. Major General Shushat Thalikhan (ph) is a former director general of the political wing of Pakistan's Intelligence Agency, the ISI.

Major General SHUSHAT THALIKHAN (Former Director, ISI): I don't think it is an (unintelligible) issue for Pakistan. The whole problem has grown into a monster. And it is now - our real existence have been (unintelligible).

REEVES: President Zardari is not a particularly popular man. Pakistanis are remarkably good at forgiving and forgetting the misdeeds of their politicians. Yet, they've never forgotten the corruption allegations against Zardari during his wife Benazir Bhutto's two terms in office. Bhutto was assassinated late last year. The question now is whether Zardari is the right man to lead nuclear-armed Pakistan away from possible disaster.

Mr. NADYN ZETTI (Newspaper Editor): Zardari is a business man. He's a small-time business who's made it big. He loves to make deals. He likes give and take, and he's a hugely pragmatic man.

REEVES: Newspaper editor Nadyun Zetti is one of Pakistan's most influential journalists. Zetti thinks Zardari's pragmatism is actually a good thing, but he adds.

Mr. ZETTI: The problem, of course, is, he has no political experience. He tends to cut corners. He tends to make deals he cannot fulfill. So there's a problem of credibility and trust as far as Zardari is concerned.

REEVES: Unless he wins that trust, Zardari will find it hard to overcome the biggest obstacle now facing him. Zardari and the Pakistani government, a coalition led by Zardari's party, believe they must get the Pakistani public behind their efforts to end Islamist extremism. That means they have to win over a multitude of Pakistanis who dislike the Islamic militants but dislike their government even more for bowing to U.S. pressure and the agreeing to go to war against those militants in northwest Pakistan.

(Soundbite of Urdu Language)

REEVES: Are we the ones that deprived mothers of their children? Says an ad running on Pakistani TV. It's time to unite and raise our voices against terrorism. That's been Zardari's message from the start. He's struggling to make it stick.

Unidentified People: (Urdu Spoken)

REEVES: There's a complication, and it comes from the U.S. Shortly before Zardari was sworn in, U.S. ground forces from Afghanistan crossed into Pakistan's tribal belt and raided a village in Waziristan. The areas are haven for the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other militants. Pakistani officials believe at least 15 civilians were killed in that assault. There was a huge outcry in Pakistan. Zardari sort of appeased his public by delivering a robust message to Washington, accompanied by more desk thumping from his supporters in parliament.

President ZARDARI: We will not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and territory integrity by any power in the name of combating terrorism.

REEVES: There have been no more ground raids since then, but unmanned U.S. predator drones continue regularly to fire missiles into Pakistan's tribal areas. Civilians are almost certainly among the dead. Pakistan's foreign ministry has condemned these missile attacks, though many suspect Pakistan has discreetly agreed with the U.S. to allow them. Tanvir Ahmad Khan, a former Pakistan foreign secretary, thinks the attacks do not help Pakistan's already weak government.

Mr. TANVIR AHMAD KHAN (Former Foreign Secretary, Pakistan): It is politically extremely costly for the government of Pakistan. The general feeling that the government of Pakistan is unable or unwilling to defend local people can be highly, very damaging to the concept of the state.

REEVES: A few days after the U.S. ground raid, there was a brief exchange of fire between Pakistani and American troops along the Afghan border. These two armies, remember, are supposed to be allies. The U.S. gives the Pakistani military hundreds of millions of dollars a month. Some Pakistani commentators say there's a risk, for such fighting could erupt again. But Talat Masood, a retired general, thinks the Pakistani military might opt for a more subtle response.

Mr. TALAT MASOOD (Retired Pakistani General): If you are pushed into a certain thing, and you cannot react, then there are other ways of reacting. Like, for instance, there would be a silent lack of cooperation in every field of activity, which is much worse because you would not know what is happening.

REEVES: Another shadow hangs over all of this. History has a habit of repeating itself in Pakistan. When civilian governments run into serious trouble, the army tends to step in. It's too soon for that to happen right now. The Pakistani army reputation has been badly tarnished by nearly nine years of being in charge of the country under Musharaff. But Najam Sethi fears that Pakistan's generals might eventually take over again in a different guise.

Mr. NAJAM SETHI (Pakistani Newspaper Editor): My great fear is this, that if this civil experiment with democracy fails because Pakistan tends to collapse in some way or the other, the implications are not that there will be a fundamentalist takeover, but that there may be an anti-American nationalist takeover, which would amount to the same thing because it would lead Pakistan into a state of isolation, a Burma-type of syndrome or a Myanmar-type of a syndrome. In a nuclear armed country, you just cannot afford to have that sort of situation.

REEVES: Sethi says that's why the United States and its allies have no choice. They must act to stop Zardari's dream for Pakistan becoming a nightmare.

Mr. SETHI: You have to help this country do nation-building. Now, it's not only Afghanistan that you have to build. You have to rebuild Pakistan because, if these two states become dysfunctional, failed states, the only beneficiaries will be mad people, whether they are Islamists or whether they are nationalists. This whole region will burn.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

BLOCK: Tomorrow, in the final part of our series, we'll hear about the challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan for the next U.S. president.

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