Zardari, Karzai Pledge New Era of Cooperation

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 9 -- Asif Ali Zardari was sworn in as Pakistan's president Tuesday, and within hours he appeared with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, pledging to work with him to resolve long-standing tensions between their countries and fight the rising Taliban insurgency on both sides of their border.

In a departure from past rancor between the two governments, the leaders spoke of a new era of cooperation, but they offered scant details about how to accomplish it. They also suggested they would stand up to the United States at a time of widespread public anger in both countries over civilian casualties in U.S. strikes.

Seated side by side beneath gold-framed portraits of Zardari's slain wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the two presidents struck a relaxed pose as they faced hundreds of reporters at the Pakistani president's residence.

Karzai, in his trademark Afghan cape and black Karakul hat, avoided the sharp words he has used in recent months over Pakistan's failure to rein in the Taliban insurgency in areas near the Afghan border. Zardari, leaning forward eagerly in a dark-blue two-piece suit, said cooperation between the two countries is crucial for success in the war against Islamist extremists on both sides of the border. Insurgents control a large portion of the 1,500-mile border, effectively rendering the region largely inaccessible to Pakistani or Afghan troops.

"If there are any weaknesses either on this side or that side of the border, then we . . . should stand together and make sure those weaknesses are settled," Zardari said.

Karzai offered the same sentiments: "Afghanistan will be there in each step that you take in our joint struggle for peace and prosperity in the region. For each step you take in fighting the war on terrorism, for bringing peace to two countries, for bringing stability to two countries, Afghanistan will take many, many steps with you."

During Pervez Musharraf's term as Pakistan's president, the two countries struggled for years to find common ground after the start of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in 2001.

While both governments publicly aligned themselves with the United States in its war on al-Qaeda and other Islamist insurgents in the region, Karzai frequently complained that Musharraf's government -- and Pakistani intelligence agencies in particular -- were playing a double game and working to undermine his government by helping or turning a blind eye to insurgents.

Zardari, 53, who took charge of the ruling Pakistan People's Party after Bhutto was assassinated in December, was sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar on Tuesday afternoon and vowed to protect the country's constitution and hew to the dominant Muslim faith of his nation. His two daughters and son looked on.

The oath-taking ceremony was a triumphant and emotional moment for the former polo player and son of a cinema owner. Widely known here as "Mr. 10 Percent" for his reputation as a backroom wheeler-dealer, he spent 11 years in prison on corruption charges that were never proved in court. Zardari has worked for months since his wife's death to blunt the allegations of corruption and consolidate his party's hold on power.

Karzai's journey to office could not have been more different. A member of an influential tribe with strong ties to Afghanistan's former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, Karzai rose to power after spending years in exile in the Pakistani city of Quetta during the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Well spoken and known for his sartorial savvy, he was tapped by foreign governments to lead Afghanistan as the country's interim president in 2002, was elected in 2004, and has received strong backing from the United States and other countries with troops in Afghanistan.

Faced with a mounting civilian death toll from U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan this year, Karzai has intensified his public criticism of U.S. military operations in his country.

Zardari, meanwhile, is facing a challenge as Pakistani security forces and insurgents clash in the country's restive tribal areas and his public grows angry over U.S. strikes on insurgent targets inside Pakistan. Both Zardari and Karzai have decried the civilian toll in the war against the insurgents, and both repeated those sentiments Tuesday.

Karzai said he was heartened by a U.S. military decision to reopen an investigation into an Aug. 22 U.S. airstrike that United Nations and Afghan officials say killed 90 civilians. He said President Bush had personally offered his condolences after the attack in the small town of Azizabad.

"We must concentrate on the right targets," Karzai said. "The targets are not civilians and kids, neither in Pakistan nor Afghanistan. The right targets are the sanctuaries."

Zardari is set to travel to China next week and meet with leaders there during the final days of the international Paralympic Games. After that, he is scheduled to travel to the United States for a White House visit.

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