Interview: Pakistan's President on Flood Recovery

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Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP / Getty Images

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari

In his first interview in Pakistan since heavy monsoon rains began lashing his country and causing its rivers to overflow, Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari, said it would take the nation at least three years to recover from its worst floods in living memory. Even with that, he wasn't certain of the time frame. "Your guess is as good as mine," he said. In a conversation on Monday, Aug. 23, with a small group of reporters, including TIME, Zardari admitted that in the interim, his government will face social "disarray," with militants keen to "take advantage" of the crisis.

Zardari said that with 20 million people affected, Pakistan "will not fully recover. I don't think anybody will fully recover. I don't think people have fully recovered from the shock of Katrina, or 9/11 for that matter. I don't think New Yorkers have fully recovered from the shock of that." As for his country, Zardari said, "in between, we'll have to go through the trauma of bad medicine, good medicine, pain, the effects of pain. That, we'll have to live through. All nations, when they've been given such challenges, have always evolved stronger nations, have evolved better nations. I'm hoping for the best."

Already unpopular and perceived to be weak before the disaster, Zardari appeared to resign himself to even more criticism. "There will be discontentment," he said. "There is no way any nation, even if it's a superpower — we've seen examples in Katrina, we've seen Haiti, we've seen examples everywhere else — can bring the same level of satisfaction that will be close to the expectations of people." Protests have already arisen around the country because of the soaring prices of food and staples. There are reports of looting in some places.

Zardari praised Washington for leading a humanitarian effort with the largest contribution, $150 million. But then, while expressing a wish that his ally the U.S. could have done more, he meandered into an unusual comparison. "Everybody knows that the Americans want to help and have helped as much as they can," he said. "But America itself is going through a lot of economic crises. They are helping as much as they can ... I would love for them to love me as much as GM [General Motors]. But then, GM is made in America and belongs to America. After all, I'm another country. And their taxpayers will only allow this much of support."

Dressed in a gray shalwar kameez and matching waistcoat, the embattled President insisted that his government is capable of rising to the occasion. "Surely we will try and meet [expectations] as much as we can, and as far as we can. We will stretch the Band-Aid to the maximum." Throughout the interview, he cast his mind back to when the country was last plunged into a major crisis: the aftermath of the December 2007 assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. "At the time, we said democracy is the best revenge," Zardari said, trying to draw strength from the past. Bhutto's portrait sat on a small table to his left. It is also prominently displayed on the large white marble walls of the presidential palace he occupies in the center of Islamabad.

Zardari warned that Pakistan's militants, including those suspected of killing his wife, are keen to exploit the floods. On Monday, three bombs exploded across Pakistan's northwest, two in the tribal areas and one in Peshawar, killing at least 36 people. But Zardari said Islamabad's resolve to fight the militants has not slackened. "I'm hoping that most of them have drowned also," he said with a slight smile. "I also have information that some of their armaments have come down." But readjusting his tone, he continued, "I see always such organizations and such people taking advantage of this human crisis. It is again a challenge to not let them take advantage of this human crisis."

Since the flooding began, the government has been roundly criticized for failing to mount an adequate response, and the President's 20% approval rating has dipped even further. Zardari said he understood the reactions of those affected. "What can you tell a mother whose child drowned ... ?" he said. "She's hurting. What I can do for her that will take the pain away? All I can do is share the pain." Much of the problem, he said, lay with poor infrastructure. "I think [Pakistan] was not geared to cater to such an eventuality." Privately, his aides concede that the government was slow to respond to the crisis. Now, they insist, damage control is being done, and their boss is back in fighting form. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, has been kept in Islamabad to help rebuild the government's image.

Some observers warn that popular disaffection may discredit all major political parties, eroding faith in the state itself. "That is the ideal hope for the radical," Zardari said. "That's his hope, that hopefully the structure of the state will fail and that he will come out and be the winner." But Zardari said he did not expect trouble from rival political parties, which also have a stake in maintaining stability. "Even if [Zardari's chief rival former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's] party is opposing me in the center, they are sharing power with us in the province," he insisted.

Nevertheless, some politicians have been fiercely critical of Zardari. One opposition leader called the President's decision two weeks ago, as the waters rose back home, to fly to his family château in Normandy "his Marie Antoinette moment." Reminded of that criticism during the interview, Zardari turned from serious and sober-minded to sarcastic: "It gives me a reassurance that I'm so wanted," he said sharply. "There is a question that I'm so wanted and so desired by the people that [they ask] 'Why were you out?' I have my own reasons for being where I was and at what time," he said. The summer sojourn, he suggested, was a necessary respite. "This is a long-term situation, and one has to have the capacity to sustain yourself for three years, or even more, and not exhaust yourself immediately ... Anyway, that's part of the past, and that's happened, and that's gone, and I'm here."

At question is, For how long? Altaf Hussain, the leader of the MQM, a powerful junior partner in Zardari's ruling coalition, during the weekend called for a "French revolution" in Pakistan. The MQM went so far as to urge "patriotic generals" to take "martial-law-type action against corrupt politicians and feudal lords." Zardari declined to respond to the suggestions that his political coalition is cracking. He said instead that the problems the country face are too great to inspire a usurper: "I don't think anybody in his right mind will be wanting to take this responsibility. It's only democracy that can carry this yoke."