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New Pakistani President Aims To Start Anew With Afghanistan

Asif Ali Zardari (right) with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai at a press conference in Islamabad
In a grand ceremony at Islamabad's sprawling presidential compound, Asif Ali Zardari was inaugurated as the country's new president.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai attended the inauguration ceremony on Zardari's special invitation. Analysts in Pakistan say Karzai's presence shows that Zardari wants a fresh start in Afghan-Pakistani relations.

They add that inviting Karzai is aimed at placating Western fears that unlike his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, Zardari might not be as robust in pursuing the war on terror in Pakistan.

The two leaders held a press conference afterward, where Karzai expressed support for Zardari and his government's efforts in the ongoing struggle against extremists.

"Pakistan and Afghanistan...are like [Siamese] twins. They are inseparable. And that is why both are suffering the same problems by the same evils," Karzai said.

"I congratulate you once again, and on behalf of the people of Afghanistan, assure you, Mr. President, and through you, the people of Pakistan, that Afghanistan will be there in each step that you take in our joint struggle for peace and prosperity in the region, in the two countries."

For his part, Zardari announced a break from the countries' difficult relations of the past and reiterated his vision for a peaceful, prosperous region.

"Today we can proudly stand in the league of nations and proudly raise our heads up and boast that we are indeed a democracy," Zardari said.

"We intend to take ourselves, the people of Pakistan, and our neighbors, [into] the 21st century together. We shall stand with each other. We shall not stand in each other's way. This is a message for not just Afghanistan but all the neighboring countries in our region."

'Winning War On Terror'

Karzai told journalists that he had a "hearty meeting" with Zardari and he is impressed with the vision Zardari has for the region. But he reiterated that defeating terrorism is important in realizing that vision.

Karzai and his administration have in the past accused Pakistan of secretly supporting the Taliban and of following double standards in fighting the war on terror on its soil. But now he discussed the proper way to fight terrorism.

"First, for us, the two countries and for the rest of the world in the war against terrorism, we must concentrate on the right targets. The targets are not civilian areas, neither in Pakistan nor in Afghanistan," Karzai said.

"Two, the right targets are [terrorist] sanctuaries. Three, that we have a responsibility, both President Zardari and his government, and me and my government," he added. "We have a responsibility towards the people of the two countries to bring them good name and a life of prosperity and peace."

Zardari said his government has the popular backing in its efforts against extremists. "The government of Pakistan already has a comprehensive plan [for winning the war on terror]. And, of course, we bring [into] it the impetus of the people of Pakistan," he said. "Yesterday's war may have not had the people behind it but today's war has the people of Pakistan [behind it]."

Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador to the United States, told a seminar at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on September 5 that relations between the two neighbors are likely to improve under Zardari as his government recalibrates its policies in the war against terror.

Haqqani added that there is no short-term solution to the war against terrorism. He said it is a long-term struggle with military, political, ideological, and economic dimensions and Pakistan will need long-term U.S. assistance to win this struggle.

"I, of course, would say that the Pakistani government, the civilian elected government, is very committed to continuing and pursuing the war on terror with greater vigor, and with all its dimensions," Haqqani said.

"Yet, the solutions will not necessarily be the ones that people recommend. For example, if people think that bombing villages in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas will bring an end to terrorism. That is not necessarily the view of the Pakistani government. It won't."

Faced with complex domestic and regional challenges, Zardari already has legitimacy in Pakistan, and early indications suggest that he also enjoys support from neighbors and strong backing from the West. But the coming days and weeks are likely to test his resolve and show whether he is able to translate his words into actions.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. ​