By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
KABUL, Jan. 6 -- Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, whose government has been accused by India of supporting a major terrorist attack there, vowed Tuesday to work closely with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to combat terrorism, saying it had become a menace to all countries in the region.
Zardari, making his first visit to Afghanistan, was welcomed by Karzai as a "brother" and returned the familiarity several times during a joint news conference at Karzai's palace in Kabul. The exchanges between the two civilian leaders appeared far more relaxed than Karzai's tense interactions with Pakistan's previous ruler, Pervez Musharraf.
"I am a victim of the same terrorism that every Afghan girl or boy in every village feels," Zardari said, referring to the assassination of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, just over a year ago. He said he and Karzai "want to tell the world we will stand shoulder to shoulder in the fight against non-state actors" who take innocent lives and terrorize nations.
As part of Zardari's visit, the two countries' foreign ministers signed a declaration that said they would develop a "joint comprehensive strategy for combating terrorism" and would "closely cooperate" with each other and the international community to "completely eliminate the menaces of militancy, extremism and terrorism from the region."
The Pakistani leader's use of the phrase "non-state actors" was a careful reference to extremist groups outside the purview of his government.
Indian officials have blamed Lashkar-i-Taiba, an Islamist group based in Pakistan, for the attacks that killed more than 170 people in Mumbai in November. On Tuesday, India's prime minister said the attack was so sophisticated and well planned that it "must have had the support of some official agencies in Pakistan." Pakistan has repeatedly denied any official involvement, and its Foreign Ministry pushed back strongly Tuesday against the suggestion, calling it "irresponsible."
Pakistan banned Lashkar-i-Taiba several years ago. But it had previously supported the group's insurgent activities in the disputed region of Indian Kashmir, and Indian and Western experts say that current or former members of Pakistan's powerful intelligence agencies may still protect and guide such groups.
In Afghanistan, terrorism by Islamist insurgents has become a major threat along the border with Pakistan. Afghan Taliban insurgents, al-Qaeda members and Pakistani extremist groups all operate in the region, and their cross-border campaign of intimidation and violence continues to defy military pressure.
In the past, Afghan and Pakistani officials repeatedly blamed each other for failing to curb Islamist extremism in their respective countries. But after Zardari became president last year following Bhutto's death, the hostility began to thaw.
"Since the inauguration of Mr. Zardari, we have stopped complaining," Karzai noted jocularly at the news conference. "We have a much better understanding between the two presidents than ever before." He said the two men had held extensive private discussions Tuesday about "how to build a closer relationship in the fight against terrorism." Neither president offered specific details of their plan, however.
The new cooperative spirit between the two governments may be as much a function of grim reality as of personal chemistry. Afghanistan faces an aggressive insurgency by revived Taliban forces, and Pakistan has been increasingly victimized by terrorist acts, including Bhutto's killing in December 2007, hundreds of attacks in the northwestern border region and the deadly suicide bombing of a luxury hotel in the capital in September.
Since coming to office, Zardari has repeatedly vowed to do all he can to combat extremist violence. But it is unclear whether the civilian leader has full control over Pakistan's security establishment, which has historic ties with Islamist fighters in Kashmir and others who battled Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s.