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Extremism

Zardari's anti-Taliban legacy has no heirs

President Zardari has urged the Pakistani government to curb terrorism in his last parliament address. But the newly-elected PM Sharif has made it clear he won't go against the Taliban - a path Zardari gladly took.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has never hesitated to call the Islamist extremists his enemies. In fact, he says they are his "personal enemies," as the Taliban allegedly assassinated his wife Bhutto in December 2007 during a public rally in the northeastern city of Rawalpindi.

After his Pakistan People's Party (PPP) came into power in 2008, President Zardari allied himself with other liberal movements such as the nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) in the restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in the southern Sindh province. The alliance was mainly forged to defeat the Taliban.

Newly-elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaking at the Parliament, in Islamabad, Pakistan, 05 June 2013
(Photo: EPA/PID / HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)

The new premier Sharif has already set the tone for his 'war on terror'

However, all three parties paid the heaviest price for their opposition to the Taliban. Their leaders and workers were killed by the extremists with impunity. Their collaboration with the US in an unpopular "war on terror" in Pakistan also cost them this year's May 11 parliamentary elections. The Pakistani people rejected them and elected instead conservative parties like Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League in Islamabad and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) or the Movement for Justice party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The anti-Taliban ANP was wiped out of the province.

The last speech

In his last speech to the joint session of the parliament's lower house (National Assembly) and the upper house (Senate) before the end of his presidency, Zardari made it clear that he was not ready to change his stance on extremism or compromise with the Taliban.

Zardari's speech came just hours after Islamist militants targeted NATO supply trucks in a northwestern tribal area near the Afghan border, killing at least six people.

"The nation is united against militancy. We need strong leadership to overcome the threat," he said to newly-elected parliamentarians. "We are ready to make peace with those willing to give up violence. But we should also be ready to use force against those who challenge the writ of the state."

Zardari also said that the fact that the Pakistani people turned out in a large number to vote in the past national elections, despite the threats of violence, was proof that Pakistanis believed in democracy.

But will Prime Minister Sharif pay heed to Zardari's advice? Will he go against the Taliban and other extremist groups in Pakistan or make peace with them? Will Imran Khan, whose party governs the strategically important Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the war against the Taliban, reconsider his policies vis-à-vis the Taliban and terrorism?

The answer is a definite 'No'. Both these leaders have avowed that they would make truce with the Islamists and won't follow the Zardari legacy.

Stronger Taliban

A woman is casting her vote in Swat in May 11 elections
(Photo: Adnan Bacha / DW)

The EU has praised the Pakistani people for coming out in large numbers to vote

Peshawar-based development worker and political activist Maqsood Ahmad Jan believes that Sharif's and Khan's insistence on peace talks with the Taliban are emboldening the extremists in Pakistan.

"The new rulers have turned a blind eye to Taliban atrocities. Some parties say that the Taliban are like their children. The result is that the radicals are getting bolder and that kidnappings for ransom are on the rise," Jan told DW. He lamented that Sharif's Muslim League and Khan's PTI offered no words of sympathy to people targeted by the Islamist militants on a regular basis.

Jan is of the view that not only the Taliban will get stronger under new rulers, the Sharif government will not be able to deal with various crises that Pakistan is facing, mainly the energy crisis. He thinks this will frustrate the Pakistani people who will probably look towards the PPP and the ANP again in future.

"Sharif and Khan have no idea how to deal with the Taliban. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister recently said he did not know who was behind the terrorist attacks."

'Unpopular war'

But experts say that despite the fact that most Pakistanis are against Islamist extremists and prefer liberal and center-right parties over hardline Islamic ones, they want their government to review its support to the US in the protracted war against the Taliban. They want peace and do not care whether it comes at the cost of giving concessions to the militants.

According to DW's Peshawar correspondent Faridullah Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been one of the worst hit by the "war on terror" and many people there are against US drone strikes in the semi-governed northwestern tribal areas. In his opinion, many people held the ANP and PPP responsible for this situation. It was something that right-wing groups are benefiting from, he said.

Political experts like Malik Siraj Akbar, who is based in the US, are critical of Pakistan's response to the Taliban and the menace of terrorism. Akbar told DW in an interview that the main reason why liberal Pakistani parties faced a dilemma was that Pakistan had not officially "owned" the so-called war on terror. "Pakistan is not ideologically convinced that it is its war."

For this reason, counter-terrorism experts in in the country say Zardari and other liberals have not been able to get the masses behind them in the fight against terror.

Another dilemma

The ANP, like the PPP and the MQM, face another ideological dilemma. Not only the Pakistani state, but now also the US, wants to talk to the Taliban and make its peace with the militants.

"So what is the future of the parties like the ANP and the PPP who have been supporting the onslaught on the Islamists?" asked Dr. Riaz Ahmed, a political activist in Karachi, who described why he believed the attacks on anti-Taliban leaders had increased. "Politicians who want an offensive against the extremists are now a hindrance in the negotiations with the Taliban. They are being removed from the scene," Ahmed told DW.

Islamic parties have always been demanding that the government makes peace with the radicals.

A Pakistani Taliban militant holds a rocket-propelled grenade at the Taliban stronghold of Shawal, in Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan along the Afghanistan border 
(Photo: Ishtiaq Mahsud/AP/dapd)

How will Sharif maintain a balance without offending the US and satisfying his supporters?

Muhammad Shah Afridi, a former conservative member of parliament from Khyber Agency, one of the semi-governed tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan, told DW that if the US and NATO could negotiate with the Taliban then Pakistan should do the same.

"War is not the solution to this conflict. We will have to talk (to the Taliban)," Afridi said.

Zardari had also welcomed the US initiative of "peace talks" with the Taliban. But experts believe it is not enough to convince the Taliban that he and his party are "friends." There are many in the ranks of the PPP and other liberal Pakistani parties who still oppose the Taliban and do not want to change their own ideological course. But experts are not sure how long they will be able to carry on with this legacy.