LONDON: Pakistan’s president held official talks with Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday, roughly a week after the British leader ignited a diplomatic row by accusing Pakistan of exporting terrorism during a trip to the country’s nuclear rival, India.
Cameron and President Asif Ali Zardari discussed ways to boost trade, cooperation in the fight against terrorism, the situation in Afghanistan and how to help people affected by recent floods that have killed some 1,500 people — the worst floods in some 80 years.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a banned charity with alleged links to the Mumbai terror attacks, is reportedly helping flood victims — raising questions about the government’s pledge to crack down on the outfit and the leadership of Zardari, widower of slain Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Zardari spoke to the French daily Le Monde this week, rejecting Cameron’s criticism that Pakistan wasn’t doing enough to combat terrorism and asserting that the US-led coalition had lost the battle against the Taliban after failing to win over the Afghan people — a claim that the White House swiftly rejected.
Describing Friday’s talks as productive, both leaders said they had committed to boosting strategic and cooperative ties.
"Whether it is keeping troops safe in Afghanistan or keeping people safe on the streets of Britain, that is a real priority for my government, and somewhere where, with Pakistan, we are going to work together in this enhanced strategic partnership," Cameron said.
Zardari described Pakistan’s alliance with the UK as unbreakable.
"This is a friendship that will never break, no matter what happens," Zardari said. "Storms will come and storms will go, and Pakistan and Britain will stand together and face all the difficulties with dignity … we will make sure that the world is a better place for our coming generations."
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.
The ringleader of the 2005 suicide bombings in London and several others reportedly received terror training in Pakistan.
Although Pakistan has lost some 2,500 of its security forces during battles against insurgents and has seen near constant terror attacks, analysts believe elements in Pakistan’s intelligence service remain sympathetic to militants.
The US State Department said Thursday that al-Qaida’s core membership in Pakistan, along with affiliates in Africa and Yemen, posed the most dangerous terrorist threat to the United States and its interests abroad. It said the terror network had expanded through affiliate groups.
Wikileaks, the self-described online whistle-blower, also recently posted leaked U.S. military documents alleging Pakistan’s unwillingness to sever its historical ties to the Taliban and alleging that some elements in Pakistan were working with militants.
One British official said Friday that the intelligence relationship with Pakistan remained a challenge because of divisions and instability within the government.
"This is a key relationship but not one without difficulties," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his job.
Zardari has headed a coalition government since unseating Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The ex-military leader was in power sharing talks with Benazir Bhutto shortly before her assassination at a political rally in December 2007.
Plagued by allegations of corruption and money laundering, Zardari hasn’t enjoyed the same support as some members of the Bhutto clan — the most popular being Bhutto’s father, Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged after his ouster.
Analysts predict Zarari’s Pakistan Peoples Party will also suffer during the next national elections in 2013 because of his low approval ratings and the severe challenges currently facing the country.
Criticized for visiting Britain at a time when Pakistan was struggling to deal with the aftermath of the deadly floods, Zardari’s visit has also been overshadowed by questions of when his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, will enter the family’s troubled political dynasty.
The 21-year-old who recently finished his history and politics degree from Oxford made several rare public appearances this week — first accompanying his father on a trip to France to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy and later for an informal dinner Thursday night with Zardari and Cameron.
Some had speculated that as chairman of his late mother’s Pakistan People’s Party that he would address a Birmingham rally on Saturday, and formally announce his intention to follow in her footsteps. Some 7,000 PPP members live in Britain.
Instead, the recent graduate issued a statement late Thursday saying that he wasn’t ready to enter politics yet and was considering a law degree.
"As for my future plans, I intend to continue my education both academic and political," Bhutto Zardari said. "I feel that an understanding of law and an appreciation for the rule of law is important for any politician seeking to strengthen democracy in Pakistan."
He said he would not attend the Birmingham rally with his father and would instead help collect donations in London on Saturday for flood victims.
"I do look forward to working with the media, the international community and most importantly the people of Pakistan in the future to achieve our shared goals of strengthening democracy in Pakistan and combating the forces of extremism that robbed me of my mother and threaten the world today."
His mother was killed in a gun and suicide-bomb attack shortly after her return to Pakistan from nearly nine years in self-imposed exile. Her father and Bilawal’s grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — the founder of the PPP — was hanged in 1979. In addition, one of her brothers was shot dead by police while another died in mysterious circumstances.
Lawmakers must be at least 25 in Pakistan. Bhutto Zardari turns 22 next month.
"There are many people in the party who believe Bilawal will be a good prime minister in the coming years — he is his mother’s son — but he should first enjoy his life for a bit and get some work experience," said Waheed Rasab, UK and European spokesman for the PPP.
Zardari travels to Syria after Britain, according to Pakistani officials in London.
Additional reporting by Danica Kirka and Sebastian Abbot