LONDON — The U.S.-led coalition's battle against the Taliban has already been lost because of its failure to win over the Afghan people, Pakistan's president warned Tuesday before tough talks this week with Prime Minister David Cameron, who has accused the country of exporting terrorism.
President Asif Ali Zardari told the French daily Le Monde online that the coalition had "underestimated the situation on the ground and was not conscious of the scale of the problem" against the Taliban largely because "we have lost the battle to conquer the heart and soul" of the Afghan people. Long-term help – not just military reinforcements – was needed.
"To win the support of the Afghan population, we must bring them economic development and show that we cannot only change their lives, but above all improve them," Zardari was quoted as saying.
Zardari is set to meet with Cameron on Friday. The talks have been overshadowed by Cameron's remarks last week that Pakistan had looked two ways in dealing with terrorists.
The visit of Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, comes amid growing concern that some elements in Pakistan's intelligence service and military have been sympathetic to militants – a claim supported in Wikileaks, the self-described online whistle-blower that recently posted leaked U.S. military documents alleging Pakistan's unwillingness to sever its historical ties to the Taliban.
"Pakistan and its people are the victims of the terrorists," said Zardari, who said Britain and Pakistan needed unity – not division on the fight against terrorism. Pakistan has lost some 2,500 of its security forces in the past few years during battles against insurgents.
Zardari denied allegations that elements in Pakistan were cooperating with the Taliban and said the Wikileaks documents citing Pakistan predated his time as president.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs rejected Zardari's assessment Tuesday, saying he thought coalition actions taken in the past few months "have much the hearts and minds of the Afghan people." Gibbs said, "The Afghan people know of the brutality of the Taliban."
Cameron's comments about Pakistan's alleged role in the export of terrorism – remarks made last week during his visit to Pakistan's nuclear rival, India – caused a diplomatic row.
Pakistan's intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, called off a trip planned to London because of the dispute, while Britain's envoy in Pakistan was summoned to Islamabad. Dozen of protesters from the Islamist group Shababe Milli, meanwhile, burned an effigy of Cameron in the port city of Karachi over the weekend.
The Pakistani leader also is facing mounting criticism at home for his government's handling of deadly floods that have killed 1,500 people, some of the worst in recent history. Also marring the visit were a series of revenge attacks that killed at least 45 people in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, after the assassination of a prominent lawmaker.
One analyst said Zardari's decision to carry out the visit left him scratching his head.
"With all the floods, the shooting in Karachi ... David Cameron's comments, I can't imagine he's going to have very much positive to take home," said Gareth Price, the head of the Asia program at London's Chatham House think tank. "The politically astute move would seem to be to have canceled the whole trip to Europe and say: 'I need to be there.'"
Pakistan is one of Britain's most important allies in fighting terrorism – nearly 1 million people of Pakistani origin live in Britain, and Pakistani intelligence has been crucial in several terror investigations, including the 2005 suicide attacks that killed 52 London commuters and a 2006 trans-Atlantic airliner plot. Many of the plots have had links back to Pakistan.
Cameron defended his comments Tuesday, but stressed the importance of Friday's talks.
"The key thing is to build on the relationship that we have and to make sure we are co-operating on security issues," he said.
Britain is one of the largest donors to Pakistan and is expected to increase aid by an estimated 40 percent as Britain cuts other foreign aid in an effort to boost support in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Britain offers about 120 million pounds ($190 million) a year in aid to Pakistan and announced in June it plans to prioritize work to improve access to education, particularly for women.
An additional 5 million pounds ($8 million) of emergency aid has been promised following the floods.
Last year, Pakistan's powerful military rejected U.S. attempts to link billions of dollars in foreign aid to increased monitoring of its anti-terror efforts.
Analysts have warned any breakdown in intelligence sharing and other types of cooperation would hurt the fight against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. and NATO commanders have repeatedly said the war cannot be won unless Islamabad does more to tackle extremists on its side of the border.
"There is a huge amount of international tension about what Pakistan is doing to deal with the issue of terrorism," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's director for the Asia-Pacific. "What remains very much in doubt is whether Pakistan's civilian government has an overall plan or the capacity to address or control the insurgency in the northwest."
The 55-year-old Zardari has long been haunted by corruption allegations dating back to governments led in the 1990s by his late wife who was assassinated in 2007 after her return from exile to Pakistan. He spent several years in prison under previous administrations and allegations he misappropriated as much as $1.5 billion.
Zardari has routinely denied any wrongdoing, but there have been growing calls to reopen an alleged corruption case involving Zardari and his late wife that had been heard in a Swiss court.
Zardari will be holding private talks on Wednesday and Thursday with Pakistani officials, community members and other British officials before meeting Cameron on Friday. He also is expected to speak Saturday at a rally of his Pakistan Peoples Party in Birmingham.