ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan’s military is better able to track down and capture terrorists along its lawless border with Afghanistan than U.S. forces, whose presence threatens to unite opposition factions into a cohesive anti-democratic coalition, Pakistan’s new president told NBC News in his first Western interview since taking office this month.
“Give us the intelligence, and we will do the job,” President Ali Asif Zardari said in an exclusive interview with NBC’s Ann Curry. “It’s far better done by our forces than yours.”
Zardari, the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, spoke Saturday just hours after a truck bomb killed 53 people at a Marriott hotel in Islamabad, an attack he said was calculated to send a message to the new democratically elected government that militant Islamist insurgents “are here, we mean business and we intend to take you on.”
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“My response is the same,” he said in the interview, excerpts of which were aired Monday on NBC’s TODAY show and “NBC Nightly News.” “I intend to take them on. My government intends to take them on.”
U.S. raids into Pakistan called ‘counterproductive’
Zardari, who is scheduled to meet Tuesday with President Bush in New York, said he was grateful for U.S. support in his campaign to succeed Gen. Pervez Musharraf in a democratic election. But he said now that Musharraf is gone, it was time for Washington to stand by its democratic principles and trust the new government to run its own affairs.
Citing a U.S. raid on Sept. 3 that left 15 people dead and angered many Pakistanis, Zardari called U.S. military actions in the border region “counterproductive.”
“If you do the incursion, then ... the constituency that I am trying to appease — they take it ... as a foreign-incursion war. They take it as a foreign war, and then they unite,” he said. “If they consider it a foreign inflow, then they might all unite.”
Zardari said the Pakistani military was well-equipped and experienced in conducting operations in the mountainous areas where U.S. officials insist that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is hiding. All they need, he said, is information and logistical support.
Signaling his willingness to face off with Bush over the critical issue, Zardari did not disavow a reported order issued to his military last week to open fire if U.S. troops launched another air or ground raid across the Afghan border.
“Our orders are they (Pakistani forces) are not to allow any intrusion of anybody in Pakistan," he said. "If the American troops are coming in without letting us know, without Pakistani permission, they are violating the United Nations charter.”
Asked if U.S. personnel would be confronted militarily, he replied, “Whatever it takes.”
Zardari thanks Bush for U.S. backing
Zardari took office earlier this month for a five-year term after elections that followed the forced resignation of Musharraf, with whom U.S. officials had a contentious relationship. Despite his strong words for the United States, Zardari owes his election significantly to Washington.
Derisively known as “Mr. 10 Percent” for longstanding allegations that he pocketed profits from numerous government contracts during his wife’s presidency, Zardari had faced corruption charges in Pakistan, Britain and Switzerland. But U.S. negotiators persuaded Pakistani authorities to drop them as part of the deal that allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan from exile.
Zardari said he would tell Bush that “we thank him for democracy.”
“It was part of the promise that President Bush made to our part of the world,” he said. “And the people are looking forward to democracy.”
At the same time, however, he said he would press Bush for more economic and material assistance for Pakistan, whose economy is faltering.
“I’m talking money, access to markets — technology, for instance,” Zardari said. “We definitely need the tools to do the job.”
The bombing Saturday night at the Marriott was a stark reminder of how unstable Pakistan remains, the president said, illustrating that “it's a large and complex problem.... Obviously, something is not right here.”
“I want the world to understand that this is a signal from the terrorists,” he said. “They are challenging this democracy of Pakistan. They are challenging the people of Pakistan. They are challenging the world.
“We are there to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the world, looking the terrorists in the eye. And we will fight them.”
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com and Ann Curry of NBC News.