NEW PRESIDENT OF PAKISTAN SAYS HIS GOVERNMENT IS FIGHTING TO SURVIVE AGAINST INCREASING NUMBERS OF TALIBAN FIGHTERS THAT THE NUCLEAR ?ARMED COUNTRY UNDERESTIMATED -- "60 MINUTES" SUNDAY
Pakistan's new president, Asif Ali Zardari, says his nuclear-armed government is in a battle to survive against the growing threat of the Taliban, which his country failed to take strong action against earlier. Now the Muslim militant group has extended its presence from the tribal borderlands inland to larger cities, Zardari tells Steve Kroft in an interview to be broadcast on 60 MINUTES Sunday, Feb. 15 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
"[The Taliban] do have a presence in huge amounts of land in our side. Yes, that is the fact," says Zardari. Once confined to the county's border area with Afghanistan, where they carried out strikes against U.S. troops over the border, the Taliban have extended their influence in Pakistan inland to cities like Peshawar and the Swat Valley.
Zardari was elected president after his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated while running for Prime Minister, probably by the Taliban. He says the Taliban have been taken for granted for a long time. "It's been happening over time and it's happened out of denial. Everybody was in denial. '...They're weak and they won't be able to take over...they won't be able to give us a challenge,'" he says many thought. "And our forces weren't increased...we have weaknesses and they are taking advantage of that weakness," Zardari tells Kroft. Click here for an excerpt.
The Pakistani government has put 120,000 soldiers in the fight against the Taliban, who are suspected of harboring al-Qaeda members among them. They have had some success where the enemy can be found in numbers on roads or in the open. In more rural areas their efforts have been temporary. The Taliban can be lethal in small groups. Insurgents have carried out more than 600 terrorist attacks, killing over 2,000, including 60 in a Marriott in the capital, Islamabad.
Zardari is also battling public opinion in Pakistan. Most citizens believe the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is America's war their government is fighting by proxy. Not so says Zardari. "We're not doing anybody a favor...We are aware of the fact it's... Taliban...trying to take over the state of Pakistan," he says. "So, we're fighting for the survival of Pakistan. We're not fighting for the survival of anybody else."
Some observers have questioned how much power Zardari really has and whether he has the full support of the military and the intelligence service. They are behind him he says. "If that wasn't the case, then Islamabad would have fallen because obviously if the army doesn't do its job, these men are not restricted. They've blown up the Marriott Hotel before. They've attacked us inland before. They would be all around us, wouldn't they?" he asks.
Zardari is determined to prevail; it's more than his duty, it's personal. "I lost my wife to it. My children's mother...It's important to stop them and make sure that it doesn't happen again and they don't take over our way of life," he tells Kroft. "That's what they want to do." Much of the world has a stake in Zardari's struggle as well. With Pakistan in possession of about 100 nuclear weapons, a Taliban takeover poses a frightening scenario.