As Pakistan battles extremism, it needs allies' patience and help

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By Asif Ali Zardari
Sunday, March 6, 2011

Just days before her assassination, my wife, Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, wrote presciently of the war within Islam and the potential for a clash between Islam and the West: "There is an internal tension within Muslim society. The failure to resolve that tension peacefully and rationally threatens to degenerate into a collision course of values spilling into a clash between Islam and the West. It is finding a solution to this internal debate within Islam - about democracy, about human rights, about the role of women in society, about respect for other religions and cultures, about technology and modernity - that shall shape future relations between Islam and the West."

Two months ago my friend Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was cut down for standing up against religious intolerance and against those who would use debate about our laws to divide our people. On Tuesday, another leading member of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minority affairs and the only Christian in our cabinet, was murdered by extremists tied to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

These assassinations painfully reinforce my wife's words and serve as a warning that the battle between extremism and moderation in Pakistan affects the success of the civilized world's confrontation with the terrorist menace.

A small but increasingly belligerent minority is intent on undoing the very principles of tolerance upon which our nation was founded in 1947; principles by which Pakistan's founder, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, lived and died; and principles that are repeated over and over in the Koran. The extremists who murdered my wife and friends are the same who blew up the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad and who have blown up girls' schools in the Swat Valley.

We will not be intimidated, nor will we retreat. Such acts will not deter the government from our calibrated and consistent efforts to eliminate extremism and terrorism. It is not only the future of Pakistan that is at stake but peace in our region and possibly the world.

Our nation is pressed by overlapping threats. We have lost more soldiers in the war against terrorism than all of NATO combined. We have lost 10 times the number of civilians who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Two thousand police officers have been killed. Our economic growth was stifled by the priorities of past dictatorial regimes that unfortunately were supported by the West. The worst floods in our history put millions out of their homes. The religious fanaticism behind our assassinations is a tinderbox poised to explode across Pakistan. The embers are fanned by the opportunism of those who seek advantages in domestic politics by violently polarizing society.

We in Pakistan know our challenges and seek the trust and confidence of our international allies, who sometimes lose patience and pile pressure on those of us who are already on the front lines of what is undeniably a long war. Our concern that we avoid steps that inadvertently help the fanatics is misinterpreted abroad as inaction or even cowardice. Instead of understanding the perilous situation in which we find ourselves, some well-meaning critics tend to forget the distinction between courage and foolhardiness. We are fighting terrorists for the soul of Pakistan and have paid a heavy price. Our desire to confront and deal with the menace in a manner that is effective in our context should not become the basis for questioning our commitment or ignoring our sacrifices.

If Pakistan and the United States are to work together against terrorism, we must avoid political incidents that could further inflame tensions and provide extremists or opportunists with a pretext for destabilizing our fledgling democracy. The Raymond Davis incident in Lahore, which directly resulted in the deaths of three Pakistani men and the suicide of a Pakistani woman, is a prime example of the unanticipated consequences of problematic behavior. We need not go into the legal, moral and political intricacies of this case. Suffice it to say that the actions of Davis and others like him inflame passions in our country and undermine respect and support for the United States among our people. We are committed to peaceful adjudication of the Davis case in accordance with the law. But it is in no one's interest to allow this matter to be manipulated and exploited to weaken the government of Pakistan and damage further the U.S. image in our country.

Similarly counterproductive are threats to apply sanctions to Pakistan over the Davis affair by cutting off Kerry-Lugar development funds that were designed to build infrastructure, strengthen education and create jobs. It is a threat, written out of the playbook of America's enemies, whose only result will be to undermine U.S. strategic interests in South and Central Asia. In an incendiary environment, hot rhetoric and dysfunctional warnings can start fires that will be difficult to extinguish.

The writer is president of Pakistan.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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