Pakistan's Moment

Villagers harvest wheat Saturday on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan.
Villagers harvest wheat Saturday on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan. (By Anjum Naveed -- Associated Press)
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By Yousaf Raza Gillani
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

It is important for Pakistan -- which has transited from an authoritarian regime to democratic governance -- that the message of this first critical post-election period be bold and clear. Like newly elected governments in other democratic societies, we intend to set the tone and agenda. We want to show the world that our nation is back in business, with an overwhelming mandate from our people.

This is not an easy transition. The scars of the past decade are deep. The problems facing our country are great. But the sacrifices of millions of Pakistanis -- including Pakistan's quintessential democratic leader, Benazir Bhutto -- were not made so that our new government could be timid. We know our people expect action and progress. Our boldness is a manifestation of our awareness of the stakes -- both of success and failure.

My government is a coalition of modern, moderate, innovative, progressive democratic forces determined to jump-start the economy and to rebuild the social fabric of Pakistan. We have already freed political prisoners and lifted press censorship. We have released detained judges and will restore an independent judiciary, the centerpiece of civil society. We will strengthen and protect our neglected democratic infrastructure, especially Parliament. We will reform our tribal areas economically, politically and socially through measures that address the needs of the people and will integrate these areas into mainstream society.

The world is rightly concerned about the threat of terrorism and expects its elimination to be our government's highest priority. We intend to vigorously continue the war against terrorism with the support of the people. Pakistan must fight terrorism for Pakistan's sake. Past efforts have suffered because of the view that Pakistan sought to combat terrorism only in response to international pressure.

Our strategy against global terrorism will be multifaceted. We will combine the use of force against terrorists and civil dialogue with those who, because of religious or ethnic considerations, were misled into supporting extremists. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, people and tribes along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan were swept into a wave of violence and anti-Western sentiment. Pakistan will not negotiate with terrorists, but it will not refrain from talking to insurgent tribesmen whose withdrawal of support could help drain the swamp in which terrorists fester and grow. Yet no talks will be held with anyone refusing to lay down arms.

Our policy aims to marginalize terrorists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and our North-West Frontier region, where the rule of law had been abandoned and territory all but ceded to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Negotiations with the various tribes are being pursued with the help of the secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, which has intimate knowledge of tribes and clans in the area and which, along with my Pakistan People's Party, received the bulk of the votes of ethnic Pashtuns in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.

Erroneous comparisons have been made between our new policy and the failed deals reached with tribal militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 2004 and 2006. Those agreements were signed after militant groups bruised Pakistan's security forces in battle. Now we are negotiating from a position of strength. Militants have been asked to surrender their weapons and unequivocally give up violence. We will not cut off our ability to use force or lower the vigilance we maintain to guard against violations of the peace agreements.

We intend to restore order and to give the people an option other than collaborating with murderers whose sole goal is chaos and anarchy. We will welcome our tribes back into society while respecting their conservative interpretations of Islam, as long as they give up violence and refuse to acquiesce to the intimidation of terrorists.

Since the anti-Soviet resistance of the 1980s, the security and prosperity of Pakistan and Afghanistan have become interdependent. The border between our countries is porous, not least because some 3 million Afghan refugees still in Pakistan need to maintain ties with their kin. We intend to work with the Afghan government to secure the border and to ensure the repatriation of the refugees with dignity, security and full economic opportunity.

We understand that unemployment, inflation and poverty are corrosive elements that, if left unaddressed, can create hopelessness and ennui that undermine authority. Our government confronts high global food and oil prices and has inherited food shortages exacerbated by the smuggling of Pakistani wheat across our borders. Yet our government plans to be the safety net that ensures equity and protects people. We seek and expect the support of the international community in attaining these objectives.

There are moments in all nations' histories that divide the past from the future, that define nations' souls. This is such a moment for Pakistan. God willing, we will demonstrate to our people and to the other 1.3 billion Muslims on this planet that democracy works and is the best guarantee against terrorism, injustice and hopelessness.

The writer is prime minister of Pakistan and vice chairman of the Pakistan People's Party.


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