ISLAMABAD— Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari reiterated Monday that militancy and terrorism pose “the greatest threat” to his country, but he also criticized U.S. drone strikes against al-Qaida and its allies as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
The remarks followed a militant attack on trucks carrying supplies for NATO forces that killed at least four people.
Addressing a joint session of Pakistan's parliament at the beginning of its first year, President Asif Ali Zardari urged the newly elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to work toward finding solutions to economic challenges, a nation-wide deepening energy crisis and a Taliban militancy threatening the stability of Pakistan.
"Militancy, extremism and terrorism pose the greatest threat to our national security. The nation is united against militants. We need strong leadership to overcome the threat," said Zardari.
The Pakistani Taliban and their allies are waging a deadly insurgency particularly in regions near the Afghan border. Pakistani troops have conducted major operations to crush the insurgency, but retaliatory suicide and other terrorist attacks have killed thousands of civilians and security forces.
After elections last month, and becoming the country’s chief executive for a third time, Prime Minister Sharif promised to seek an end to the militancy through peaceful talks, rather than relying on military force.
But President Zardari cautioned Monday against such attempts.
“We are ready to make peace with those willing to give up violence. But we should also be ready to use force against those who challenge the writ of the state," he said.
Pakistan is a close U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic militancy, but suspicions that Pakistani intelligence operatives still maintain ties to anti-America extremists like the Haqqani network of the Afghan Taliban remain a source of diplomatic tensions.
Without naming any country, President Zardari again dismissed those allegations and said Pakistan is determined to root out militancy with the cooperation of its allies.
“Militancy threatens all countries in the region and indeed the whole world. It calls for sincere and collective efforts of all. We can fight militancy better, through dialogue and cooperation rather than doubting each other," he said.
Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal territory is believed to be a stronghold of fugitive Afghan and al-Qaida militants involved in cross-border attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. Many believe Islamabad’s alleged inaction mobilizing troops against these extremists has prompted the United States to launch missile attacks using unmanned aircraft or drones against suspected targets.
The strikes have taken out key al-Qaida and Taliban militants, but Pakistani leaders are opposed to these operations and insist civilian deaths in such attacks are fueling militancy. President Zardari restated Pakistan’s position on the issue.
“Drone attacks are a serious violation of sovereignty and international law. They are also counterproductive and are not acceptable," said Zardari.
The latest drone strike Saturday killed at least seven suspected militants and prompted Pakistan to summon a senior American diplomat in Islamabad to formally protest the continuing strikes. Prime Minister Sharif has vowed to stand up to Washington over the use the drones.
U.S. officials consider drone strikes an effective weapon in the fight against terrorism. The drone attacks in Pakistan have sharply declined this year and President Barack Obama in a speech last month on counter-terrorism policy indicated he may further restrict their use.
Hours before the Pakistani president addressed the national parliament, suspected Taliban militants dressed as policemen attacked trucks carrying supplies for coalition forces in Afghanistan. The assault in the Khyber tribal district left four people dead and two vehicles destroyed.
Taliban insurgents have frequently targeted NATO convoys passing through Khyber, one of two entry points into Afghanistan from Pakistan that international forces use to ferry “non-lethal” supplies.