YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Karzai is a guest at Pakistani fete

Despite their nations' tensions, the Afghan leader shares the limelight as Zardari is sworn in as president.

September 10, 2008|Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King | Special to The Times

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — In a determined show of solidarity, the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan declared Tuesday that they stood together in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but they discreetly acknowledged that their common alliance with the United States was fraught with political peril for each of them.

The unusual joint appearance came just hours after Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was sworn in as president of Pakistan. Many of his compatriots view Zardari as an untested leader who will have to work hard to overcome a corruption-clouded past and a wheeler-dealer image.

In his first full-scale news conference since his election Saturday by lawmakers, Zardari chose to share the spotlight with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The decision appeared meant to emphasize Zardari's wish to turn over a new leaf in trouble-plagued relations with Afghanistan.

But it also served to deflect attention away from the fact that Zardari articulated no substantive policy positions on either Pakistan's collapsing economy or its burgeoning Islamic insurgency. Instead, he parried pointed questions from Pakistani reporters with broad generalities.

Asked at one point about the difficulties of waging an unpopular war against militants sheltering in Pakistan's tribal areas, he replied, "We can look the problem in the eye, and we can solve it."

The evident warmth between Zardari and Karzai was remarkable in light of the fact that Afghanistan has accused Pakistan's main spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, of aiding militants who have staged a series of attacks in Afghanistan, including an assassination attempt against Karzai in April.

Zardari, referring to the Afghan leader as "my brother," declared, "We shall stand with each other; we will not stand in each other's way."

Karzai likened the two countries to conjoined twins.

It is unclear whether Zardari's civilian government exercises any meaningful control over Pakistan's powerful intelligence establishment. Asked about the allegations of ISI complicity in the attempt on Karzai's life, Zardari said the two governments would work together to address any "weakness."

Karzai used the high-profile forum to again express concern about civilian casualties in Afghanistan at the hands of Western forces. More of these occurred Tuesday, when a misdirected bombing by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces left two civilians dead and 10 wounded in the eastern province of Khowst. The coalition blamed a faulty weapons system.

"The war against terrorism will only be won if we have the people with us," Karzai said. "In order to have the people with us, we must avoid civilian casualties."

The Afghan leader welcomed a decision by the U.S. military to dispatch a high-level outside team to reinvestigate an Aug. 22 airstrike in the western province of Herat that his government says killed 90 civilians. The United Nations has backed up the Afghan assertion; the U.S. military has acknowledged killing seven civilians in the raid.

The day also brought a reminder of the growing strength of the insurgency in Afghanistan. Three Western soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in the country's eastern region, where nearly all the foreign troops are American.

Zardari has been placed in a difficult position by an intensified but largely unacknowledged campaign of U.S. airstrikes targeting militant figures in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border. American forces also staged a rare ground raid in Pakistan last week.

Mindful of public scorn over the perception his government is tacitly allowing the United States to violate Pakistan's sovereignty, Zardari suggested that he, unlike his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, will be able to convince a skeptical electorate that fighting the insurgency is in his country's best interest.

"Yesterday's war might not have had the people behind it, but today's does," Zardari said.

President Bush telephoned the Pakistani leader to offer congratulations on his inauguration and promise continuing support, Zardari aides said.

Officials of Zardari's party, as they have since Bhutto's Dec. 27 assassination, sought to paint him as the rightful heir to her legacy. Her three children -- Oxford student Bilawal and two teenage daughters, Bakhtawar and Asifa -- looked on with tears in their eyes at the swearing-in. Large portraits of Bhutto and her executed father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, served as the backdrop.

The swearing-in brought one awkward reminder of the political infighting that preceded Zardari's ascendancy to the presidency. The governing coalition fell apart over whether and how to reinstate senior judges fired by Musharraf last year.

The oath of office was administered to Zardari by Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar, appointed by Musharraf to replace a highly popular chief justice the former military leader forced out. Zardari is thought to fear that former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, if reinstated, might revive corruption charges against him.


Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.

Los Angeles Times Articles