In an exclusive interview, Pakistan’s new prime minister spells out his plans for fighting terrorism and stabilizing his volatile country.
Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani faces a host of pressing problems. Since taking office late last month, Gilani, 55, said that his priority would be trying to establish law and order in the wake of a spate of deadly suicide bombings, one of which killed the leader of his Pakistan People’s Party, Benazir Bhutto, late last December. While Gilani ruled out holding talks with any armed militants along the Afghan border, foreign or Pakistani, he said that military force would be a last resort. First he wanted to concentrate on bringing economic development to the poverty-stricken region. The scion of a powerful landowning and spiritually influential family in Multan, which emigrated to the subcontinent from Syria some 500 years ago and which traces its ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad, he also ruled out any unilateral U.S. military strikes into Pakistan, hinted that parliament will strip Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf of his power to dissolve the government and will soon restore the senior judges whom Musharraf sacked last November. Speaking to NEWSWEEK’s Ron Moreau in the prime minister’s residence on a wooded hill overlooking Islamabad, Gilani said he was confident he could work with Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, whom he praised as a good, highly professional soldier. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Your new government is facing myriad problems: terrorism, extremism, an economic and financial crisis, power and food shortages and inflation. What’s your priority?
Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani: What I personally feel is that political stability leads to economic stability. My priority would be to control the law-and-order situation in the country, so we have to discourage this extremism and terrorism. That’s what is affecting our economy. Law and order is affecting foreign investment, and internally it’s becoming an acute problem because we have to spend a lot on defense.
What specifically can you do to improve law and order? We need the help of the entire world, because we are fighting terrorism and extremism, though it is our own war. We want a three-pronged strategy to combat terrorism, especially in the areas of FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) that are close to the Afghan border. First, we should deal with the people to improve their well-being and give them good job opportunities. We need to create a good environment and an education system [without the] old madrassas, where the students are being groomed for the Taliban, and give good health and communications facilities. We should give the people bread and butter and jobs, and only then can we think of the other strategy of [employing military] force. Force should be kept in the background and should not be put into practice all the time. If force is [used] all the time it will erode the authority of the government.
You have also said that you would talk to the militant groups along the border. Whom would you talk to and what would you say to them? We are not in favor of talking to the militants and hardliners. We want to only talk to people who have laid down and decommissioned their arms. Then we can talk to them.
But you are facing militants like Baitullah Mehsud and the Haqqani network, who have created a state within a state along the border and who are making demands on your government. How will you deal with people like those, who also seem to control and intimidate moderate tribal leaders? Being the chief executive I have to look after the interest of my own country. We will not be blackmailed by them. We won’t listen to their demands that are totally unrealistic. If they want us to hand over [jailed] terrorists as a [precondition] for talks, that will not happen.
So no talks with armed militants? No. We won’t talk to them until our preconditions are met. They should [put down] their arms first. Not only Mehsud but also other [armed] tribes who are not militants.
Put down their arms against Pakistan or against Afghanistan as well? This [extremism] is a war against humanity, the world community. How can we separate the others [allies and neighbors] from us?
But aren’t the militants saying that perhaps they can make peace with Pakistan but that the jihad against foreign forces in Afghanistan must continue? As a sovereign country, we in Pakistan have to respect our own laws and constitution. As far as NATO forces and Afghanistan are concerned, they are dealing with the militants separately. But we are helping [NATO and Afghanistan]. We are helping them because we don’t want cross-border activities [from our territory]. We are very strict on this and will remain so.
So you’ll continue to try to stop cross-border movements of militants? We will discourage that. But at the same time the terrain is so difficult and the border is so lengthy that even if we deploy the whole Pakistan Army there we may not be able to control [the frontier].
The United States has said that if Pakistan cannot control the border then it will take unilateral action. And there have been recent reports of U.S. Predator aircraft taking such unilateral action, striking inside Pakistan without Pakistan’s consent. Is this happening, and if so will it continue? We believe in democracy and the rule of law, and we want respect for the sovereignty of the country. At the same time, since I have been the chief executive these [unilateral attacks] have never happened, and it will never happen again because they [the United States] have to have prior permission. And I think we are capable [of handling the problem] ourselves.
What about recent reports from Washington that the U.S. not only wants to strike Al Qaeda targets in the tribal area but also at Pakistani militants? In terms of the Predator, since I took over nothing has happened like this.
Has the U.S. been exerting a lot of pressure on you to take a certain line regarding President Musharraf or the war on extremism? I have already mentioned that it’s our war. We are with humanity and the world community. We are a global world and we are fighting for the [same] cause. And our primary objective is to control the law-and-order situation in Pakistan. As for Musharraf, he is an individual, and so that has to be dealt with according to the Constitution.
Can you work and cooperate closely with President Musharraf given the fact that his regime threw you in jail for five years? My having been in jail has nothing to do with my position today. The Pakistan People’s Party believes in peace and reconciliation. We don’t want to fight for nonissues. We are working together with President Musharraf according to the constitution of Pakistan. I’m not bitter at all.
Will the parliament pass legislation that will further curtail the president’s powers, such as his power to dismiss the government? The 1973 constitution of Pakistan is the only document that is acceptable to the people of Pakistan. [The late Prime Minister] Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave us this constitution that until today is keeping the federation intact. We in the PPP are bound to protect the 1973 constitution. These amendments [which gave Musharraf extraordinary powers to dismiss the government] were made afterward. So we don’t accept these amendments that were made after  undemocratically. We believe in balance of power between the parliament and the president. And with our coalition partners we are committed to rectify all these things that are unconstitutional. We have a very fragile democracy in Pakistan. So this hanging sword [that the president wields] of dissolving the [national] assembly at any time is not in the interest of the world or of anybody in the country. That would only destabilize democracy in Pakistan.
So the president’s power to dismiss the government should be removed? We need to protect the constitution, and we have the votes [to amend it]. The people voted for our manifesto that was to restore the original 1973 constitution. We don’t have to get rid of Musharraf. We have to get rid of his amendments.
Will the judges who were removed by Musharraf in his Nov. 3 state of emergency be restored to the bench? And will Chief Justice [Iftikhar Muhammad] Chaudhry be included? This has been a very hot debate in the country for many months. For this issue the country has paid a very heavy price. When we were campaigning for the independence of the judiciary my party lost many lives in Karachi, Rawalpindi and Islamabad. I was jailed because I was protesting against the emergency decree as PPP vice chairman. Recently PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari and [former prime minister] Nawaz Sharif decided to restore the judges. All the coalition partners have debated and deliberated and decided that a resolution should be moved in parliament. And parliament is supreme. Now let’s leave it up to the parliament to do whatever it wants, whether it wants to restore the judges and the chief justice. But the mood of the people of Pakistan is for the restoration of the judges and the chief justice and for the independence of the judiciary.
Will that resolution be moved in parliament this week? Maybe.
One reason for instability in the past has been the lack of trust between the Pakistani military and the civilian leadership. Are you and Army Chief Kayani working as a team? My country has had several experiments [with military rule] in the past, and they were failures. There was a lot of interference and the destabilizing of the civilian government by the army. We are left with no other solution but to strengthen democracy in the country, and to make institutions strong. I’m committed to making parliament supreme, to making the judiciary independent, the press free, and to make all institutions strong, including the military. We want to make our defense [forces] strong. I’ve met Mr. Kayani on several occasions. He has called on me, has briefed me regarding the security situation in the country. He seems to be highly professional, and he wants to support the civil government. There is no doubt that we will have the full cooperation of the army. With magnanimity the army has decided to withdraw voluntarily the army people serving in civilian departments. I see a highly professional, good human being in Mr. Kayani who will extend full support to the civil government.
In the past, civilian governments didn’t have much of a role in formulating defense and security policies. Will yours? Certainly, yes. We are the government and we will formulate the defense policy. The army chief has already briefed me and my coalition partners here about what they have in mind about law and order, especially in FATA, as well as about nuclear and other defense projects. We will formulate a policy that will be handed over to [the military] for implementation. The other day I went [with Kayani] for the test [firing] of the Shaheen-II [nuclear-capable] missile. It was a very good experiment. We are having good relations.
Your coalition partner Nawaz Sharif seems to take a much harder line than you regarding Musharraf, whom he wants to resign, and the immediate restoration of the judges. Can your coalition survive the strain? When you agree to disagree, that’s democracy. Nawaz Sharif’s and ours are two different parties. We have not merged. They have their own manifesto and programs. But for bare minimum issues we are together. As far as judges are concerned their position and ours are the same. As for the war on terror our positions are the same. He may be more hardline. But I’ve worked with him previously and I’m still working with him. He’s a good and experienced person. He was prime minister twice and he is thinking of the national interest. There is no reason the coalition won’t last.
But what about his insistence that Musharraf be pushed out? As far as Musharraf is concerned, the people of this country have given a clear mandate against his policies, against his undemocratic acts. Therefore we want to work with him according to the constitution. If Nawaz feels [Musharraf] should not be here, then the constitution has to be followed. That can’t be dealt with by desires. It [impeachment] can only be worked out if [Sharif] has the [two-thirds] majority in both houses [of parliament]. But Musharraf is not the issue. The main issues are terrorism and extremism, fundamentalism, food and electricity shortages and the economy, which is totally in a mess.
Have you been encouraged by your initial contacts with U.S. officials? I got a telephone call from President Bush, and also from Sen. Hillary Clinton. They expressed a desire to help Pakistan. [Bush] has invited me [to Washington]. But we have a lot of things to do on the home ground first.
How long do you expect to remain in office in view of Zardari’s recent comment that he would become premier if the need arose? The PPP is a very democratic party with roots in all four provinces. We have decided to separate the party and the government offices. I’m PPP vice chairman, but I don’t attend party meetings. The party formulates the policies, and the government implements the policies. I’m here because of the party, and I’ll be here as long as the party wishes me to be.
What role will the party’s two co-chairmen [Bhutto’s widower Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari] play in your government? The party and the two co-chairpersons formulate the party’s policies with consensus of the coalition partners. Once the policies are made they are given to the government to execute them. As chief executive I’m implementing the policies and manifesto of my party from the very first day when I became prime minister.
Is it wrong to say that Zardari is giving you orders? There is no need for giving orders. I’m following my party’s manifesto.
Are you in close contact with Zardari? Certainly, yes. I have very close contacts with him and our cabinet ministers. We are a team, working together.