The most dangerous job on earth

NEW YORK — Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s new president and the widower of Benazir Bhutto, does not mince words in his determination to defeat a growing Taliban insurgency.

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«It is my decision that we will go after them, we will free this country,» he told me in an interview. «Yes, this is my first priority because I will have no country otherwise. I will be president of what?»

After the massive bomb attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, that’s a fair question. Its finances in a free fall, its security crumbling, nuclear-armed Pakistan stands at the brink just as a civilian takes charge after the futile zigzagging of General Pervez Musharraf’s U.S.-supported rule.

I asked Zardari, who took office this month, if the assassination of his wife last year motivated him to confront Islamic militancy. «Of course,» he said, «It’s my revenge. I take it every day.»

He continued: «I will fight them because they are a cancer to my society, not because of my wife only, but because they are a cancer, yes, and they did kill the mother of my children, so their way of life is what I want to kill. I will suck the oxygen out of their system so there will be no Talibs.»

Are you afraid for your life? «I am concerned, I am not afraid,» Zardari, 53, told me. «Because I don’t want to die so soon, I have a job to do.»

What a job it is. If Pakistan is the most dangerous country on earth, a phrase no less true for being a commonplace, its presidency is one of the world’s least enviable and most critical posts.

Billions of dollars in U.S. aid to the Muslim country’s former military government have not stopped the northwestern tribal areas from becoming the new al-Qaida-Taliban central.

The menace from there has been measured in a rising death toll for NATO forces in Afghanistan, 2,000 pounds of explosives at Pakistan’s heart and far-flung terrorist threats. No wonder ministers from across the world gathered under a «Friends of Pakistan» banner at the United Nations last week with promises of aid.
But money is worthless, as the seven years since 9/11 have demonstrated, unless some basic things change in democratic Pakistan.

One is the double game that’s been played by the nation’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, in an apparent effort to ensure Afghanistan remains weak.
«The ISI will be handled, that is our problem,» Zardari told me. «We don’t hunt with the hound and run with the hare, which is what Musharraf was doing.»

Aside from Zardari’s official meetings here with the likes of President Bush, I was told he held an unpublicized one with Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA. I also learned that the heads of three directorates within the ISI have already been replaced.

«We’ve changed a lot of things and a lot more will happen, and anyone not conforming with my government’s policy will be thrown out,» Zardari said of the ISI, without mentioning specifics or his meeting with Hayden.

Zardari also indicated that he wants to cooperate with the United States in training specialized counterinsurgency army units for use in the tribal areas. «I mean business,» he said. «We will train ourselves with the U.S. present as trainers to raise the quality of certain forces.»

But he warned against U.S. military incursions inside Pakistan, the object of tension since a commando raid on Sept. 3. «It is counterproductive and a political price is paid,» he said, especially if no high-level target is found.

Zardari said his «new medicine» for the tribal areas would include industrial investment, incentives for alternative crops to poppy, like corn, and a firm message that «we are hitting the Taliban» so make sure «your space is not being used by them.» A businessman, he noted that historically, «Nobody traveled through these mountains without either paying them or hiring them or sharing the booty of India with them.»

But Pakistan is short of cash to strike Anbar-province-like deals in tribal areas. Zardari made an impassioned appeal for the Saudis and others to slash his annual oil bill by $15 billion by selling «a democratic Pakistan oil at their base price.»

My impression? This guy’s very smart, a wheeler-dealer in an area full of them, secular, pro-American, committed to democracy, determined and brave. I never heard Musharraf frame Pakistan’s fight against terrorism with such candor.

I believe he wants genuine conciliation with India and Afghanistan, essential to the region’s stability. I care much less right now about his checkered past than about getting behind him for the sake of civilization and democracy.

After he talked of revenge for Benazir’s death, Zadari added this: «I am not a warmonger. I am not interested in physical might, which is not the expression of my strength. I have many strengths, and one of them is that I can take pain, not give pain. I don’t consider anyone who can give pain brave, I consider anyone who can take pain brave. That is why I consider a woman a stronger gender because she can take much more pain than a man.»

From a Muslim leader, and one so bereaved, I salute that, without reserve.