x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Zardari's European visit is not winning friends

The Pakistani president begins a three-day visit to the UK today amid a mounting furore over his trip, including a cricketer star vowing to organise protests.

The Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, delivers a speech while on his European tour after a meeting with France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, on Monday.
The Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, delivers a speech while on his European tour after a meeting with France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, on Monday.

LONDON // Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, begins a three-day visit to the UK today amid a mounting furore over his trip. Opposition parties in Pakistan have called on him to cancel the visit in the wake of Prime Minister David Cameron's accusation last week that Pakistan was "exporting terror".

Now Imran Khan, the cricketing legend who leads the Tehreek-e-Insaf party, has said he will organise protests against Mr Zardari's decision to go ahead with the visit at a time when Pakistan has been hit by its most serious flooding in eight decades. "The country is in the grip of the worst floods that have unleashed widespread devastation, especially in Kyber Pakhtunkhwa province, leaving hundreds of dead and millions homeless. In view of these circumstances, President Zardari should have suspended his trip," said Mr Khan.

Meanwhile, Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, was beset by violence yesterday as riots between factions for revenge killings left at least 40 people dead. To add further controversy, Mr Zardari told the French daily Le Monde, in a story published online yesterday, that the US-led coalition's battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan has already been lost because of its failure to win over the Afghan people. The coalition "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", Le Monde quoted the Pakistani leader as saying, according to The Associated Press.

Despite the uproar that is shadowing his trip, there are sound financial reasons why Mr Zardari has been so determined to press ahead with it. For one thing, it emerged last week that Pakistan was set to become the largest beneficiary of the UK's £2.9 billion (Dh16.95bn) overseas aid programme. In the latest financial year, that aid amounted to £140 million - making Pakistan the sixth largest recipient of British support. But the figure looks set to increase by about 40 per cent in the coming years.

"Within three years, Pakistan would probably receive more money from the recast budget than any other country," said Andrew Mitchell, the UK international development secretary. "Our efforts are focused on accountability, building up the sinews of the state, focusing on education where you have a rapidly increasing population." The British largesse has more to do with an interest in seeing a stable Pakistan than altruism. Like so much else in UK-Pakistan relations these days, the reason is the terror threat.

Security chiefs say about three quarters of the terror plots in Britain have ties to Pakistan - a fact pointed out by Gordon Brown, then the UK prime minister, when he met Mr Zardari in December 2008. Some young Britons of Pakistani origin travel to the ancestral homeland and are radicalised there or receive training in terror tactics from al Qa'eda. It is one reason why Mr Cameron will not be apologising to Mr Zardari for his comments last week when the pair meet at Chequers, the PM's official country residence, on Friday.

On Mr Zardari's part, he is anxious to enlist Mr Cameron's help in getting British backing for Pakistan to get a free trade deal with the EU. It was a message the president hammered home to his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, when the two met in Paris on Monday. The UK, as the second largest international investor in Pakistan, also has a financial interest in achieving such a goal. The UK is one of Pakistan's major markets for textiles, rice, leather, carpets and fruit, and Mr Zardari would like to that trade to grow.

During his visit, the president will meet leaders of the million-plus Britons of Pakistani origin living in the UK - home of the second largest expatriate group of Pakistanis after Saudi Arabia. He will also address a meeting of Anglo-Pakistan community groups and Pakistan Peoples Party branches in Birmingham. Few of those leaders are likely to raise publicly the controversy over Mr Cameron's recent remarks. "We have all taken a vow of silence," said a Pakistani community leader in East London yesterday. He asked not to be named.

"It is not a controversy we want to be associated with," he said. "British Pakistanis enjoy our links to the old country. But we are British, too." But more radical Pakistani groups in Britain will not be pleased to see Mr Zardari here. In May of last year, they held demonstrations against his presidency outside the Pakistan High Commission in London following the military offensive in Swat. Fouzia Habib, the assistant political secretary to the president, said the thrust of Mr Zardari's visit would be to discuss the challenges facing democracy in Pakistan.