PARIS (Reuters) - Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari said on Tuesday the international community was losing the war against the Afghan Taliban and rebuked Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron for questioning Islamabad’s resolve.
Shortly before leaving France for Britain for a visit that could define Pakistan’s troubled relations with the West, Zardari set the stage for a difficult meeting with Cameron, saying he hoped a “frank exchange” would clear the air.
During a visit to India last week, Cameron said Pakistan must do more to prevent “the export of terror,” comments that infuriated Islamabad, which summoned Britain’s envoy on Monday.
In a statement released by his office overnight, Zardari’s office quoted him as saying it was “unfortunate that certain individuals continue to express doubts and fears about our determination to fight militants to the end.”
“Pakistanis were disappointed by Cameron’s comments especially as he said them in India and for this reason it was even more important for the president to visit Britain to address this issue,” the statement said.
“Such fears will only weaken the international effort to fight militants and extremists.”
In an interview with Le Monde, Zardari gave a stark assessment of the nine-year Afghanistan war, and said the West was to blame for failing to win the support of ordinary Afghans.
“I believe that the international community, which Pakistan belongs to, is in the process of losing the war against the Taliban,” Zardari said. “And that is, above all, because we have lost the battle for hearts and minds.”
The international coalition had “underestimated the situation on the ground and not recognized the extent of the problem” following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 to oust the Islamist Taliban movement and fight its al Qaeda allies.
“The success of the insurgents has been to know how to wait. They have time on their side,” he told the newspaper. “The whole approach seems wrong to me. The population does not associate the presence of the coalition with a better future.”
Despite an increase in the U.S.-dominated foreign force in Afghanistan to 150,000 troops, the Taliban insurgency is at its strongest since the hardline Islamists were overthrown in 2001.
Western powers have long suspected some in the Pakistani security forces of quietly helping Afghan insurgents, suspicions that gained attention last month after they appeared in a trove of classified U.S. documents leaked by website WikiLeaks.
Pakistan had a history of supporting the Taliban before 2001, but says it is now fully committed to fighting the militants on both sides of its frontier with Afghanistan, and bristles at any suggestion that it is playing a double game.
In the interview with Le Monde, Zardari expressed hope his meeting with Cameron would help dispel a “serious crisis.”
“I will tell him face to face that the war on terrorism should unite and not oppose us. I will explain to him that it is my country which is paying the highest price for this war in terms of human lives,” Zardari told Le Monde.
“A frank discussion will allow us to reintroduce a little bit of calm ... Relations between our two countries are old and solid enough for that,” he said.
Zardari dismissed the leaked U.S. documents, saying they mainly concerned the period before he took office in late 2008.
French officials said on Monday that President Nicolas Sarkozy was conciliatory in talks with Zardari, which did not touch on either the leaked documents or Cameron’s comments.
Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by David Stamp