ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, (AP) – Pakistan is succeeding in its fight against Islamic extremists close to the border with Afghanistan, even though the campaign is being hampered by U.S. missile strikes in the region, the country’s president said Monday.
Asif Ali Zardari told The Associated Press in an interview he expects U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to take a “new look” at Pakistan’s objections to the missile attacks on suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban targets, but that did not know if Obama would halt them.
The United States is pressing Pakistan to take more action against militants in its rugged and lawless northwest border area, which many consider the global front line in the fight against al-Qaeda.
Pakistan has pursued a military campaign in a tribal region in the northwest since August that officials say has killed 1,500 suspected insurgents.
U.S. officials say it has helped stem the flow of fighters into neighboring Afghanistan, where they are blamed for rising attacks on American troops.
“I think from where it was when we took over, we are in a much better place,” said Zardari about the military operation in Bajur tribal region.
“We used the force of the government and they (the militants) realized that there is a force here, that the people of Pakistan are to be reckoned to it,” said Zardari, whose wife, ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in a suicide and gun attack believed carried out by al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Since August, the United States is believed to have launched at least 18 missile strikes on militant targets from unmanned drones believed launched from neighboring Afghanistan.
The attacks have killed some militants, but many of the dead have been civilians, Pakistani officials say. U.S. military Gen. David Petraeus said last week that the missile strikes had killed three top extremists leaders.
Pakistani leaders have condemned the strikes.
“We feel that the strikes are an intrusion on our sovereignty which are not appreciated by the people at large, and the first aspect of this war is to win the hearts and mind of the people,” Zardari said.
Pakistan also faces dire economic problems, from soaring inflation to a falling currency.
The government is talking to the International Monetary Fund about a bailout, a politically unpopular move because it often means cuts in government programs that help the poor.
Zardari insisted Monday that there was no economic meltdown looming in Pakistan, but also defended turning to the IMF.
“I think it’s a difficult pill, but one has to take medicine to get better,” Zardari said.