President Asif Ali Zardari is not new to meeting public figures, he lived in the shadow of the Late Benazir Bhutto for long, and indeed he is not new to meeting western women. Thus I see his opening remarks on meeting Sarah Palin a feeble attempt to be charming. Well initially! Complimenting her on looking 'more gorgeous in person' is perhaps right from the book 'The Game' but still acceptable to woo a woman who could be a heartbeat away from the White House one day. But then when asked by the cameramen to shake hands again his comment, 'if they keep insisting I might hug you' was lame, uncalled for and frankly totally out of order for the President of a country. I am a very liberal man, perhaps more than most Western men, but then wearing the mantle of a Presidency asks for people to bring some dignity to the position you hold.
I can see that Mr. Zardari sees himself as the champion of the fight against terrorism and this is where he and Sarah Palin might have alot of rhetoric to share. However, my former school mate, Asif I mean, has to understand that the problem of violence in Pakistan is a mixture of Taliban, Al Qadea and the lack of respect for the tribal system. I belong to that tribal system and I know a fair amount of how people of the Khyber Agency see things.
I am often then asked how to deal with this problem in the North of Pakistan? My solutions may not be complete but they will be certainly better than what is on offer at the moment. In the first place I would take a page from the book the British wrote about respecting the tribal system and working WITH it to control trouble. This would mean strengthening the Jirga (tribal councils) system and putting money into the tribal chiefs hands with the following deal; we will support your system if you have no taliban and no al Qadea in your region. If we know they are there then we will stop supporting you. The Pakhtun system is based on honor and respect and with the Pakistan and the US armed forces making incursions into tribal regions the traditional chiefs have lost face, power and respect in their own tribes. Yet they form the basis on which the society is knit together.
Yes the task is more difficult given that the Al Qadea and perhaps the Taliban have used money and religion to consolidate themselves in the tribal system, yet they have not got enough control over the populous of tribes who need to build their respect and trust into the tribal chiefs. While this will not solve the problems immediately but it will release the army from fighting the tribal people and deploy to protect more of the border.
However, all this may be too much for a new President to appreciate and understand for the moment, but then being in the job one either learns or just stumbles. What ever was discussed later between Palin and Zardari I cannot see it being highly enligthening considering her view is right wing hawkish and Zardari's view seems to be 'formative and lost'. I hope for the sake of Pakistan that the learning process of being diplomatic and charming is not all what we see from a President. We would want to see wisdom and leadership, not high school attempts at charm. The interesting thing is that what I would remember of Asif is that he can rise to the occasion, meeting Palin was certainly not one of them.