Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Tuesday insisted that his country’s nuclear arsenal is "definitely safe," despite growing concerns about recent gains by the Taliban along the country’s border with Afghanistan.
In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Zardari responded to the fact that the United States doesn’t know the locations of all of Pakistan’s nuclear sites. He also addressed the Obama administrations concern over whether the weapons are vulnerable to Taliban fighters who are gaining control of some border regions. “They can’t take over,” Zardari said, referring to militants. “We have a 700,000 (person) army — how could they take over” For the last two weeks, Pakistani troops have been battling Taliban fighters in Buner and Lower Dir, two districts bordering the Swat Valley — a broad Taliban stronghold in Pakistan. Army generals claim to have killed scores of militants. Pakistan’s government recently signed a deal that would allow Islamic law, or sharia, in the Swat Valley, in exchange for an end to fighting. Still, Pakistan’s military is continuing an assault on militants in Taliban-held areas after they seized territory in violation of the agreement signed by Zardari. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama said Pakistan’s government appears to be “very fragile” and argued that the United States has “huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable” and doesn’t end up a “nuclear-armed militant state.”
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And, after making two visits to Pakistan in the last three weeks, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated Monday that he is “gravely concerned” about recent Taliban and al Qaeda gains across much of southern Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are “definitely safe,” Zardari said Tuesday. “First of all, they are in safe hands. There is a command and control system under the president of Pakistan. And Buner … there has been fighting there before. There will be fighting there again and there will always be an issue of people in those mountains that we’ve been taking on.” Zardari’s comments came as the Obama administration prepared for meetings set for Wednesday with Zardari and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to discuss security in the region. A senior administration official told reporters that the U.S. objective of the meetings is “an alliance with these countries against a shared threat.” Watch Pakistan’s U.S. ambassador discuss the Taliban insurgency » Zardari and Karzai will also be visiting key congressional leaders and policymakers in advance of meetings with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A bill called the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, introduced by Sens. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, and Dick Lugar, R-Indiana, would authorize $7.5 billion in non-military aid to Pakistan over the next five years to foster economic growth and development, and another $7.5 billion for the following five years. Zardari, for his part, said he is grateful for the financial aid Pakistan has received from the United States, but said he needs “more support.” “I need drones to be part of my arsenal. I need that facility. I need that equipment. I need that to be my police arrangement,” he said. The U.S. military has carried out airstrikes against militant targets in Pakistan, after Zardari’s government was criticized for not cracking down on militants along the Afghan border. The unmanned drone attacks have rankled relations between Pakistan and Washington. Asked whether the U.S. strategy bothered him, Zardari said, “Let’s agree to disagree. … We’re still in dialogue.” Zardari also denied speculation by some Congressional lawmakers that his country has used most of the $10 billion given by the United States to strengthen its arsenal against a threat from nuclear rival India — as opposed to going after the ongoing militant threat. “They’ve given $10 billion in 10 years, a billion nearly a year for the war effort in — against the Taliban, and the war that is going on,” he said.
Zardari also addressed his government’s apparent resistance to significant U.S. involvement on Pakistani soil. Recently, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates observed, “There has been a reluctance on their part up to now. They don’t like the idea of a significant American military footprint inside Pakistan. I understand that. And — but we are willing to do pretty much whatever we can to help the Pakistanis in this situation.” Zardari called Pakistan’s relationship “pretty strong” and said, “We are asking. We’ve been asking for a lot of help, and it has been in the pipeline for a long time.”