Pakistan president claims criticism is sign of his popularity

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari talks to in May 2009 in Washington, D.C.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari talks to in May 2009 in Washington, D.C. Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's president, who provoked a furor by continuing a high-rolling tour of European capitals as floods devastated his country, dismissed the criticism Monday as a sign of how much he's "wanted" at home.

In an interview with a small group of foreign reporters, Asif Ali Zardari warned that Taliban extremists and "rightist forces" could take advantage of the country's floods crisis. At least one prominent political figure in exile over the weekend all but called for a military coup.

Zardari and his government have been castigated for their management of the four-week-old disaster, which has inundated about a fifth of the country's land mass and displaced as many as 20 million people. Raging waters have spread to the south of the country, and the United Nations said Monday that "the floods are outrunning our relief efforts."

Zardari, already unpopular at home because of a reputation for corruption, brushed aside the criticism. He said that his European trip had allowed him to build his relationship with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

"It (the criticism) gives me a reassurance that I'm so wanted . . . I'm so wanted and so desired by people, that (they say), 'Why are you out'? I have my own reason for being where I was at what time," Zardari said. "I know that this is a long term situation, and one has to have the capacity to sustain oneself for three years and not exhaust yourself immediately."

There are fears that the mass destitution, the destruction of much of the country's crops and an outbreak of disease could push nuclear-armed Pakistan towards chaos, and some commentators have suggested that the pro-Western government of this key U.S. anti-terror ally might be toppled.

Zardari said it will take a minimum of three years to rebuild destroyed areas, but added: "I don't think Pakistan will ever fully recover."

As Zardari spoke, Taliban militants killed at least 36 people in Pakistan's troubled northwest, in three separate attacks. Pakistan is fighting a three-year-old insurgency in its northwest, against homegrown Taliban extremists.

"The ideal hope for the radical (is) that hopefully the structure of the state will fail, and he will evolve and come out the winner. It's like when they assassinated my wife. It was not just an action to get rid of a prime minister to be, it was an action because her personality was a challenge to their ideology."

Zardari's wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by Islamic extremists in 2007 as she campaigned for election, catapulting him to the leadership of her Pakistan Peoples Party and, two years ago, the presidency.

Zardari suggested that Pakistani Taliban might kidnap children dislocated by the flooding and put them in terrorist training camps.

Over the weekend, a powerful Pakistani political leader, Altaf Hussain, who's exiled in London, said that a "French Revolution" is required, calling on the military to "weed out corrupt politicians and feudal lords."

Hussain's party, known as the MQM, is part of the ruling coalition. Pakistan has been ruled for most of its existence by its military. However, Zardari insisted that Pakistan's multiple crisis would stop another coup.

"I don't think anybody in their mind right mind would want to take responsibility, it's only democracy that can carry the yoke. Yes, there will be disappointments, so political forces are there for that reason," Zardari said.

"We will rebuild Pakistan in a better place. But in between, we'll have to go through the trauma of bad medicine, good medicine, pain; we'll have to live through that."

Zardari praised the American contribution to the international aid effort for the flood victims — Washington has pledged the most out of any country, $150 million, and sent 19 helicopters to carry out rescue missions — though he suggested that the U.S. hadn't yet won over public opinion in a country where anti-American views are rampant. He said that he's "disappointed" that the U.S. and Europe still haven't given Pakistani exports preferential access to their markets.

"Everybody knows that the Americans want to help as much as they can . . . I would love them to love me (Pakistan) as much as they love GM," said Zardari, referring to General Motors. "(Winning Pakistani) hearts and minds is a long term commitment, they (the U.S.) have to be here long term, and empower democracies much more, by giving them access to markets."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


As floodwaters recede, anger grows in northwest Pakistan Pakistan flood aid inadequate, U.N. warns Pakistan flood crisis raises fears of country's collapse Pakistan's flood victims find little help from government As Pakistani government falters after flooding, Islamists fill void

Related stories from McClatchy DC