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The Zardari Show

This week's visit from Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari included one White House summit and a number of 'I-Want-To-Tear-My-Hair-Out' interviews ("I" being the viewer, not Zardari). This morning, 'Meet The Press' aired its Zardari sitdown. Three exchanges were worth noting. The first:

MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask you about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.  There's been a question about the security of that arsenal.  You've assured the world that those nuclear weapons are secure.  But I wonder why you're continuing to add to your stockpile, add to your arsenal at what is described as a pretty fast rate when there's so much instability in the country?

MR. ZARDARI:  That's, that's, that's not a fact.  It's a, it's a position that some people have taken.  We, we're not adding to our stockpile as such. Why do we need more?

MR. GREGORY:  So you're not adding to your nuclear arsenal at all?

MR. ZARDARI:  I don't think so, no.

MR. GREGORY:  You don't--do you know?

MR. ZARDARI:  Even if I did, I wasn't going to tell you.

This is somewhat less than comforting. In the same vein:

MR. GREGORY:  Is there a view, however, in Pakistan that the Taliban should be kept around for a rainy day, as it's been said, as a bulwark against Indian influence in neighboring Afghanistan?

MR. ZARDARI:  I don't think so.  I don't think so.

Obviously Zardari's eight words can be spoken with varying inflections and levels of passion, but he appeared extremely hesitant onscreen. 

And this leads to the third exchange. In an interview with Charlie Rose earlier in the week, Zardari was asked why the Pakistani military is still on the eastern border with India, across the country from Afghanistan and the Taliban. Zardari's response was two-fold: First, he said the military was in eastern Pakistan because of the "perceived" threat of India. He added that it was natural for the military to be on the eastern border because eastern Pakistan is the location of most Pakistani military bases. This second answer was almost tautological, and only restated the problem Rose was asking about. Still, his use of the word "perceived" was interesting. Was he saying that India was not a real threat? And "perceived" by whom? He is after all the country's leader. But, coupled with his half-admission that Pakistan's military posture is a relic of another era, the answer seemed significant. Gregory gave him the chance to comment on the same subject today:

MR. GREGORY:  Do you consider the Taliban to be a bigger threat today than India?

MR. ZARDARI:  I consider it a different--they're--India's a country and Pakistan is a, a...(unintelligible)...we're, we're two states which in fact Pakistan stemmed out of the subcontinent out of India.  So it's a different relationship, it's a different context.

As the transcript makes clear, Zardari did not want to answer the question. But perhaps one reason why India is "perceived" as a bigger threat than the Taliban is that Pakistan's leaders refuse to say otherwise! In other words, for Pakistan to revise its defense posture it needs two, interconnected developments: reduced tensions with India, and a populace more concerned with religious extremists than the democratic state next door. But that is not going to happen until the message starts being sent out from on high. Sure, this kind of thing takes years, if not generations, and Zardari is not a leader with much popularity or power in his own country. But his hedging is just another sign of how complex the problem remains, and how difficult it is going to be for the Obama administration to realize its aims in the region.

--Isaac Chotiner