The Most Difficult Job in the World

Pakistan’s president on terrorism, India and his late wife.

Asif Ali Zardari used to sport a full moustache, jet black and rakish in the style of the avid polo player he once was. But sometime in the past year he trimmed it short and let its salt-and-pepper colors show. It befits the sober role he has now assumed, at 53, as the president of Pakistan, probably the world’s most difficult — and dangerous — political job.

[The Weekend Interview] Zina Saunders

Mr. Zardari shows no signs that he is stepping into that role diffidently. In an interview last Saturday with The Wall Street Journal, held under tight security at a midtown Manhattan hotel, he crafted his phrases in a tone of command. Pakistan’s war, he says, is “my war,” its fighter jets “my F-16s,” its Intelligence Bureau “my IB.” When he discusses Pakistan’s economic crisis — the central bank has about two months’ worth of foreign currency reserves left to pay for the country’s imports of oil and food — he says he looks to the world to “give me $100 billion.”

For a man who has been president for less than a month, that’s an ambitious request — all the more given his checkered past. Mr. Zardari is, of course, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, the former two-time Pakistani prime minister assassinated last December shortly after her tumultuous return from an eight-year exile. He invokes her name repeatedly throughout our interview, at times to stress the importance he attaches to women’s rights and empowerment, at other times to underline how personally he takes the threat of Islamic radicalism.

But Mr. Zardari is also known as “Mr. Ten Percent,” a moniker he acquired thanks to his legendary reputation for graft. At one time or another, he and his late wife were suspected of profiting (or seeking to profit) from corrupt schemes involving everything from the purchase of Polish tractors and French jets to the import of gold bullion. In 2006, he even produced a diagnosis of dementia from two New York psychiatrists as part of an effort to defend himself in a corruption case in Britain.

These days, Mr. Zardari seems to be in excellent mental health — if indeed he was ever unwell. Nor does he seem particularly vexed by his own past notoriety: All charges against him were eventually dropped in a political deal the previous government of President Pervez Musharraf struck with Bhutto, and as president he enjoys legal immunity. As for the broader corruption concerns, he all but waves them away as irrelevant. The corruption issue, he says, “has been used for a long time as a political tool,” particularly by “radicals” trying to sully democracy’s good name. Foreign investors, he adds, have been coming to Pakistan for decades, and “none of them have complained about corruption.”

That last observation may come as news to at least a few investors — Pakistan ranked near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption perception index in 1995, the last full year during which Bhutto was in power. Investors might also have memories of the circumstances in which Bhutto’s second government collapsed in 1996.

“Since her re-election to office in 1993, [Ms. Bhutto] has run roughshod over strict fiscal and economic targets laid out by the International Monetary Fund for Pakistan’s anemic economy,” wrote Journal reporter Peter Waldman in November 1996. “In one of her more perplexing moves, she kept the Finance Ministry portfolio for herself, making it virtually impossible for her coalition government to muster the political will to curb Pakistan’s gaping budget deficit. The lack of confidence in her government recently reached crisis proportions, with Pakistan’s foreign-currency reserves plummeting below $700 million, or less than a single month’s imports.” At the time, Mr. Zardari occupied the post of Pakistan’s minister of investments, reporting to his wife.

Put simply, the economic crisis Mr. Zardari faces today is, at least in part, a crisis of confidence in him. He alludes to this problem only once in the interview, noting that before he can hope to get foreign help he will “have to make my credibility, my case.” Still, he has a simple and powerful argument to make that the world cannot allow his government to fail — not when it’s becoming increasingly plausible that Pakistan itself, with its stockpile of as many as 200 nuclear warheads, could be toppled by al Qaeda and its allies.

“I need your help,” he says more than once. “If we fall, if we can’t do it, you can’t do it.”

In asking for the help — and $100 billion is no small request, even (or particularly) in the age of AIG — Mr. Zardari is keen to insist that it not be described as aid. “Aid is proven through the researches of the World Bank . . . [to be] bad for a country,” he says. “I’m looking for temporary relief for my budgetary support and cash for my treasury which does not need to be spent by me. It is not something I want to spend. But [it] will stop the [outflow] of my capital every time there is a bomb. . . . In this situation, how do I create capital confidence, how do I create businessmen’s confidence?”

To his credit, Mr. Zardari’s answer involves more than simply passing around the collection plate. When I ask whether he would consider a free-trade agreement with traditional archenemy India, Mr. Zardari responds with a string of welcome, perhaps even historic, surprises. “India has never been a threat to Pakistan,” he says, adding that “I, for one, and our democratic government is not scared of Indian influence abroad.” He speaks of the militant Islamic groups operating in Kashmir as “terrorists” — former President Musharraf would more likely have called them “freedom fighters” — and allows that he has no objection to the India-U.S. nuclear cooperation pact, so long as Pakistan is treated “at par.” “Why would we begrudge the largest democracy in the world getting friendly with one of the oldest democracies in the world?”

Not only does Mr. Zardari want better ties with Delhi, he notes that “there is no other economic survival for nations like us. We have to trade with our neighbors first.” He imagines Pakistani cement factories being constructed to provide for India’s huge infrastructure needs, Pakistani textile mills meeting Indian demand for blue jeans, Pakistani ports being used to relieve the congestion at Indian ones. For a country that spent most of its existence trying to show that it’s the military equal of its neighbor, the agenda amounts to a remarkable recognition of the strides India has made in becoming a true world power.

But before Pakistan can hope to save itself by completely reshaping the situation on its eastern frontier, it has the more pressing problem of resolving the crisis to its west, in its tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. On the day of our meeting, there had been reports that Pakistani army forces had fired on U.S. aircraft operating along the border with Afghanistan, while Pakistani officials were taking an ever-tougher line against NATO commando raids against the Taliban on Pakistani soil.

Mr. Zardari seems anxious to downplay any differences with the U.S. “I am not going to fall for this position that it’s an unpopular thing to be an American friend. I am an American friend.” The firing on the U.S. aircraft was, he says, merely an incident, “and while incidents do happen, they are not important.” He goes off the record to describe sensitive military subjects, but acknowledges that the U.S. is carrying out Predator missile strikes on Pakistani soil with his government’s consent. “We have an understanding, in the sense that we’re going after an enemy together.”

He also acknowledges the problem that had bedeviled past efforts at U.S.-Pakistani cooperation, particularly in intelligence sharing: the widely held suspicion that Pakistani intelligence services continue to cooperate with, and even arm, the Taliban. “You know, you keep an uglier alternative around so that you may not be asked to leave,” he says, in reference to Mr. Musharraf’s habit of fighting Islamic radicals with one hand while protecting them with the other. Mr. Zardari refuses to go into further detail other than to say he “solved the problem”; the head of Pakistani intelligence was fired earlier this week.

Mr. Zardari seems to hope that, with the intelligence problem out of the way, a new era of cooperation can open up with the U.S. “We want to be able to share [U.S.] intelligence,” he says. “We need helicopters, we need night goggles, we need equipment of that sort.” He stresses the need for precision and finesse in fighting Islamic militants, rather than large-scale military force. “My eventual concept is that we should be taking them on as they are, as criminals.” Of Osama bin Laden he says, “the minute I make anybody my enemy, he becomes as big as I am.”

In recent weeks there have been reports that Pakistan has deployed F-16s against tribal insurgents, in part because the army’s own frontier troops have been routinely routed in ground fighting. Their problems aren’t simply tactical. “What kind of a joke is this that I cannot pay my security personnel more than the Talibs are paying?” he asks. “Those terrorists are paying their soldiers 10,000 rupees; I’m paying seven or six thousand rupees.”

The effects of such a disparity are increasingly in evidence. The recent bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott hotel, in an area that is under particularly tight security controls, is a fresh reminder that Pakistan’s terrorist problem extends well beyond the tribal hinterlands.

Speaking of the attack, Mr. Zardari again brings the subject around to his economic problem. “If I can’t pay my own oil bill, how am I going to increase my police?” he asks. “The oil companies are asking me to pay $135 [per barrel] of oil and at the same time they want me to keep the world peaceful and Pakistan peaceful.”

It’s a fair point. And it leads Mr. Zardari to a kind of peroration, the case he has to make that he is, after all, the right man for Pakistan in its hour of peril — however improbable that may seem given everything that is known or suspected about his past.

“You know, every life has its end,” he says. “So, before mine ends, I want to finish this job and I want them to remember that they did get my wife and I won’t let them get away with it. I do not necessarily feel that death is a reality. I do not deny death. But the way they did it, they killed the mother of my children so it’s very personal for me. And before I finish, when my life ends, I need this job done. The sooner the better.”

Mr. Stephens writes “Global View,” the Journal’s foreign-affairs column.

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