Pakistan’s president speaks out on Mumbai, terrorism and the ISI.
Lally Weymouth. NEWSWEEK. From the magazine issue dated Dec 22, 2008
President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan is in the hot seat. Under pressure from the international community, he ordered police last week to crack down on Jamaat-ul-Dawa, a charity thought to be the public front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani terrorist group that India blames for the Thanksgiving attacks in Mumbai. President Zardari spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Lally Weymouth just before the Jamaat arrests. Excerpts:
Weymouth: It has been reported that Pakistan ‘ s Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] agency had links with Lashkar-e-Taiba [LeT] and that it shared intelligence with LeT on Kashmir. Do you believe that to be true?
Zardari: We are talking about an age-old situation. This is something [that happened] in the old days when dictators used to run the country. Maybe before 9/11, that may have been a position. [But] since then, things have changed to a great extent.
It is said that Lashkar is operating with the help of ISI now, not in the past.
There is no supportive interaction with our intelligence [agencies] and the LeT. Lashkar-e-Taiba happens to be a banned organization in Pakistan.
I remember how you and [your late wife] Benazir Bhutto felt about the ISI — and blamed it for causing many of your problems after she left her post as prime minister.
Yes, we’ve always maintained a certain position that the intelligence agencies [should] have nothing to do with politics. Since I have been in government, we’ve had a stated position that ISI has no political role anymore.
The problem is that long before you came to office, Lashkar-e-Taiba was used in Kashmir by the Pakistani Army to fight India.
That may have been the situation then, but things have changed. Lashkar-e-Taiba has been banned. Of course, these nonstate actors keep re-emerging in different forms. Whenever there is actionable intelligence, we move in before anyone else does.
I thought Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice demanded that you do something about the Mumbai bombing. Did she ask you to arrest some people?
She is a friend and she knows Pakistan is a responsible state, and the Americans and the British know how much my government has done for this operation … against the terrorists since we’ve been in government.
What do you think about the Mumbai attack?
I think it is horrific.
Reportedly, all of the terrorists were trained in Pakistan.
I don’t have any specific information to that effect because the Indians have given us very little information. I have offered to the Indians that we will do a joint investigation into this Mumbai incident and if it leads anywhere, we will take action.
If the terrorists … were trained in Pakistan, don ‘ t you have to do something?
Definitely. Not for them, it’s for myself … The Indians must understand that the government [of Pakistan] and the people of Pakistan are net losers of the situation. We had put in a lot of effort … to make good relations with India.
Allegedly, Rice asked you to arrest a former ISI chief, Gen. Hamid Gul. There have been stories that Gul is tied up with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. I remember Benazir talking about how bad Gul was.
Hamid Gul is an actor who is definitely not in our good books. Hamid Gul is somebody who was never appreciated by our government. She [Rice] did not go into specifics, if I may share that with you …
He has not been accused in the Mumbai incident … I think he is more of a political ideologue of terror rather than a physical supporter.
What do you need in order to move faster? Do you need real-time intelligence?
Of course. For instance, a lot of people are [saying] that they knew about this attack. I’ve heard that the Russians told the Indians, but I wish the Russians had also shared it with us.
The Indians are asking you to send them people to bring to justice, right?
[We] don’t have that kind of relationship yet. America and Pakistan have hardly gotten to the position where we can interact and exchange information.
So you will not send anyone to India?
No, that is a decision to be made by the Parliament and not by the president.
Do you control Pakistan or does the Army control Pakistan?
Democracy controls Pakistan … All the players today understand that democracy is the only way.
So if you say there will be no first strike against India — as you did — will the Army listen to you?
Of course. It goes without saying.
Do you think India has a problem with its own Muslims? Were Indian Muslims involved [in the Mumbai attacks]?
I am not pointing fingers as I want to improve my relations with India … I want to be a friend of India and a friend of the world and [a foe of terrorism] because I am a victim myself.
There is always room for improvement on every side. There is room for the world to help me with the present situation in Pakistan, where poverty is a friend of the terrorists. I need to become economically better so I can employ these youths that [the terrorists] are employing.
U.S. intelligence reportedly has evidence of ISI ‘ s involvement in the [July] bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Is it true?
No, we have not had that intimation from the Americans. I totally deny that. We had nothing to do with the Kabul bombing. Again, these are nonstate actors.
Are you going to take any concrete steps to crack down on the Lashkar-e-Taiba?
Things have been done. One step is we have started combing the whole region for all nonstate actors and we have made certain arrests.
Do you think you can shut the LeT down?
We will not allow anybody to have the capability to perform such acts.
Or to train on Pakistani soil?
Nobody will be allowed to use Pakistan soil for any form of aggression toward any friend or foe.
Secretary Rice said that nonstate actors on your soil are still your responsibility.
Yes, definitely. I do not shrug away from that position. Anybody from my soil is my responsibility.
Over and over before, Pakistani leaders said they would do something about Lashkar and they never did.
That is not us.