Zardari and Karzai Show Solidarity

In his first press conference just hours after being sworn in as president today, Asif Ali Zardari chose to share the spotlight with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, apparently in an effort to calm the tense relations between the two neighboring countries, each of which is fighting an expanding Islamic insurgency. Karzai, whom Zardari had invited to his Inauguration at the presidential palace in Islamabad, had had a very rocky relationship with former president Pervez Musharraf. Karzai had blamed the Taliban's resurgence on the sanctuaries that he claimed the guerrillas enjoyed in Pakistan's tribal belt along the two countries' common border. Musharraf denied the charge, shooting back that Karzai should put his own house in order first and that the Taliban was a homegrown problem.

As Karzai and Zardari shared the rostrum together this afternoon, all vitriol from the past was gone. The two leaders seemed to be of the same mind on how to tackle their respective insurgencies and how to cooperate together. "Pakistan and Afghanistan are like twins joined, inseparable. That is why both are suffering the same problems, the same evils," said Karzai, 50, wearing a lambskin cap and a blue and green striped cape. "For each step you take in the war against terrorism for bringing peace and stability to the two countries, Afghanistan will take many steps with you." Zardari agreed. "We should stand with each other," he said.

Zardari, 53, made it clear that he has the ability to rally Pakistanis to support the war on Islamic extremism, while Musharraf, having widely been seen as Washington's man who was fighting an American war, did not. "Yesterday's war may not have had the people behind it, but today's war does," he said. "In fact it has the president of Pakistan [behind it], who is also a victim of terrorism," he added, referring to the death of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was a victim of a terrorist attack while campaigning last December.

Karzai couldn't seem to tire of praising his counterpart. "The feeling of brotherhood and good neighborliness goes beyond the complaints that we have," he said. "Today I see the president and prime minister of Pakistan [as having] exactly the same viewpoints as I have, and they have the same background of suffering as we have in Afghanistan."

Karzai didn't even single out Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan as his country's main problem but rather pointed out that insurgents have sanctuaries on both sides of the border. In responding to a question on the mounting civilian casualty toll in Afghanistan, Karzai said the U.S.-led coalition should not fight the war in villages or populated areas but rather should "concentrate on the sanctuaries, whether those sanctuaries are in Afghanistan or Pakistan."

Zardari, wearing a pinstriped suit and rimless glasses, said he accepted the presidency in the name of his martyred wife, adding that the country could be proud of the democracy that has taken hold since her death. "We can proudly raise our heads up and boast that we are indeed a democracy," he said.

He also tried to inject a new, less imperial tone into the presidency since the days of the autocratic Musharraf, emphasizing the more than eight years he had spent in jail under the general's rule. "You should see in my presidency a humility after long suffering," he said. "I've suffered [because] a president or an individual thinks he knows more than the wisdom of the people or the Parliament."

About his future plans and vision for the country, however, Zardari had little to say. He did not say what he plans to do with Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, whom Musharraf had sacked, and whose restoration to the bench had been a common goal of both Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his coalition partner until last month. When Zardari reneged on promises to reinstate the justice, Sharif walked away from the coalition, weakening it.

Nor did Zardari divulge much about his plans to address the country's mounting economic woes, other than to say he was cutting the budget of the presidency out of solidarity for people suffering from the sharp economic downturn. He also sees the country's security woes as a possible economic opportunity. "We are in the eye of the storm," he said. "I consider that an opportunity. I intend to make it our strength. We intend to take the world with us in developing the future of Pakistan."

Questioners gave Karzai and Zardari little opportunity to talk about anything but the War on Terror. Zardari made it clear that he would that not allow insurgent safe havens in Pakistan. "Not one inch of land will be lost to any miscreants," he said, using the term the Pakistani military uses to refer to insurgents. But, he added Pakistan was not the aggressor and that it was only fighting against those who were attacking it. Negotiations could take place if the insurgents laid down their weapons. "We only go on the offensive against people who are on the offensive against ourselves," he said. "Otherwise we asked for peace and asked them to lay down their arms. If they lay down their arms we can negotiate with them."

Despite the apparently warm relations between the two presidents, how long can the bonhomie last? Insurgencies on both side of the border seem to be growing in intensity and breadth. Taliban safe havens in Pakistan have become such a threat to coalition forces across the border that the United States has ramped up its Predator drone attacks against militant positions inside the tribal region, carrying out at least five this month. Pakistanis widely see these attacks as violations of the country's sovereignty rather than assistance in combating extremism. A real test of their friendship will come if another major terrorist attack occurs in Kabul, like the car bombing of the Indian Embassy last July, that can be traced back to insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan. That's when emotions could get the best of good intentions.