Pakistan, Afghan Presidents Pledge to Work for Peace
Zardari, Karzai Vow to Fight Taliban Along Both Sides of Border Supporters of the Pakistan People's Party cheer in the street with posters of President-elect Asif Ali Zardari and his slain wife Benazir Bhutto during a rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Sept. 8, 2008. Zardari, widower of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto became Pakistan's new president Saturday after winning a landslide election victory that makes him a critical partner of the West against international terrorism. (AP Photo/Wally Santana) (Wally Santana - AP)
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, right, widower of assassinated former Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto speaks as his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai looks on during a press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008. Zardari took office as the country's new president, facing immediate pressure to crack down on Islamic militants and address daunting economic problems. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed) (Anjum Naveed - AP)
In this photo released by Press Information Department, Asif ali Zardari, left, takes oath of the president of Pakistan from Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar, right, at the presidential palace in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, Sept 9, 2008. Pakistan, Afghan Presidents Pledge to Work for Peace
From CFR: Pakistan's New Leader and the U.S. Dilemma
Zardari met with Karzai within hours of being sworn in as Pakistan's new president in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. In a rare joint meeting with the media, the two leaders hinted at a new era in relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan at a time when both countries are facing increasing threats from a powerful insurgency and sharp public discontent over their alliance with the United States. Zardari and Karzai said they remain committed to fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents. But both men indicated that they are determined to redefine their relationship with Washington.
Seated side-by-side beneath gold-framed portraits of Zardari's late wife, former president Benazir Bhutto, and Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the two men struck a relaxed pose as they faced hundreds of reporters at the Pakistani president's residence.
Karzai, in his trademark Afghan cape and black Karakul hat, showed few signs of the rancor he has expressed in recent months over Pakistan's failure to rein in the Taliban insurgency in areas near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Zardari, leaning forward eagerly in his dark blue two-piece suit, said cooperation between the two countries is crucial for the success of the war against Islamist extremists on both sides of the border.
"We should stand with each other and not stand in each other's way," Zardari said. "This not just a message for Afghanistan but for all our neighbors."
The meeting marked a bold departure for the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which struggled for years under former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to find common ground following the start of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in 2001. While both countries publicly pledged allegiance to the United States in its war on al-Qaeda and other Islamist insurgents in the region, Karzai, who was elected to the Afghan presidency in 2004, frequently complained that Musharraf's government -- and Pakistani intelligence agencies in particular -- were playing a double game and working to undermine Karzai's government. The resulting mistrust between Musharraf, Pakistan's former army chief, and Karzai has for years plagued efforts to build cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But in Karzai's meeting with Zardari Tuesday. the two leaders expressed a determination to change the tenor of relations between the two countries. Zardari said he had assured Karzai that he would work to address any differences in the future.
"If there are any weaknesses either on this side or that side of the border, then we together should stand together and make sure those weaknesses are settled," Zardari said.
"Afghanistan will be there in each step that you take in our joint struggle for peace and prosperity in the region," Karzai said. "For each step you take in fighting the war on terrorism, for bringing peace to two countries, for bringing stability to two countries, Afghanistan will take many, many steps with you."
Zardari, 53, who took charge of the ruling Pakistan People's Party after Bhutto was assassinated in December, was sworn in by Pakistani Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar on Tuesday afternoon. Flanked by the outgoing caretaker Pakistani president, Mohammed Mian Soomro, and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, Zardari vowed to protect the country's constitution and hew to the dominant Muslim faith of his nation as his two daughters and son looked on.
The oath-taking ceremony was a triumphant and emotional moment for the former polo player and son of a cinema owner. Known popularly here as "Mr. Ten Percent" for his reputation as a back-room wheeler-dealer, Zardari has worked for months since Bhutto's death to shrug off allegations of corruption and consolidate his party's hold on power.
Although he spent 11 years in prison on corruption charges that were never proven in court, Zardari successfully led his party to a sweeping victory at the polls in parliamentary elections in February. Since then, his political momentum has steadily increased, enabling him to push Musharraf out of office and helping him to vanquish some of his most powerful political rivals. It was a remarkable feat for a man who lacks the pedigreed imprimatur of many of his political peers, and for a man who two decades ago said he had no interest in politics.
Zardari's journey to power in Pakistan could not be more different than that of his Afghan counterpart. The son of an influential tribe with strong ties to Afghanistan's former King Zahir Shah, Karzai rose to power in Afghanistan after spending years in exile in the Pakistani city of Quetta during the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan in the 1990s. A well-spoken politician known for his sartorial savvy, he was tapped to lead Afghanistan as the country's interim president in 2002 and has since received strong backing from the White House. Karzai and Zardari have met on previous occasions, but Tuesday marked their first meeting as the official heads of their governments.
In recent months, the two leaders have faced intense public pressure to redefine relations with the United States. Faced with a mounting civilian death toll in the wake of several controversial U.S.-led airstrikes in Afghanistan this year, Karzai has intensified his public criticism of U.S. military operations in his country. Zardari, meanwhile, has also faced a challenge as Pakistan continues to reel from clashes between its security forces and insurgents in its restive tribal areas and a harsh public backlash to U.S.-led strikes on insurgent targets inside Pakistan. Both Zardari and Karzai have decried the political cost of civilian casualties in the war against the insurgency, and both men repeated those sentiments Tuesday.
Karzai said he was heartened by a decision Monday by the U.S. military to reopen an investigation into an Aug. 22 U.S.-led airstrike in western Afghanistan that United Nations and Afghan officials say killed 90 civilians. He said President Bush had personally offered his condolences in the wake of the attack on the small town of Azizabad. But he remained firm in his stance that U.S. and NATO forces need to do more to minimize damage from strikes on targets where civilians reside.
"We must concentrate on the right targets," Karzai said. "The targets are not civilians and kids, neither in Pakistan nor Afghanistan. The right targets are the sanctuaries."
The meeting in Islamabad between the Pakistani and Afghan presidents marked the first state visit from a foreign leader since Zardari came to power. Zardari is expected to travel to China next week to meet with leaders there during the final days of the international Paralympic Games. After that he is scheduled to travel to the United States for a White House visit.