Will Zardari follow Musharraf?

By M.D. NALAPAT, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Aug. 26, 2008 at 9:00 AM

MANIPAL, India, Aug. 26 (UPI) -- After Pervez Musharraf himself, the individual who will be most nervous at the resignation of Pakistan's president is the Pakistan People's Party co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari. For it was Musharraf -- admittedly with repeated prodding from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- who offered Benazir Bhutto's widower amnesty from the numerous corruption cases against him in exchange for his party's support for his presidency.

Zardari, for reasons unknown, declined to take over as prime minister of Pakistan, putting forward a presumed yes man, Yousaf Raza Gilani, in March.

The new prime minister, a Shiite and a Saraiki-Punjabi, lost less than a week in establishing direct links with the real power center in Pakistan, the army. He made the unusual gesture of personally calling on the chiefs of both the Inter-Services Intelligence and the army. Today it is to Gilani, rather than to Zardari, that military chief Ashfaq Kayani turns on the infrequent occasions when he wishes to consult the civilian authority. As for the ISI, that instrument of jihad continues to function under army headquarters.

Although he owes his job to Zardari, it is unlikely that Gilani will do more than offer a token resistance to the reinstatement of those judges sacked by Musharraf last year, including the Zardari-phobic former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The ambitious Gilani is aware that a fresh spell of imprisonment -- or enforced exile -- would significantly weaken the Zardari family's hold over the PPP, thus making him Pakistan's version of India's Narasimha Rao, the only individual to have succeeded, albeit temporarily, in wresting the Nehru-Maino family's grip over the Congress Party.

The son of Zardari and Benazir Bhutto, Bilawal Bhutto, sans his street-smart parent, would be easy pickings for the savvy and telegenic Fatima Bhutto, niece of the fallen leader and a possible substitute for her within the PPP. The other Ms. Bhutto has demonstrated both tenacity and a commitment to liberal values that could prove useful in the context of a radicalizing Pakistan.

Unfortunately for her many backers in the United States and Europe, the late Benazir Bhutto never shook off her fear of the mullahs, always giving them access and privileges during her stints as prime minister. Not that such an approach won them over. From the start, the Pakistani religious establishment has been opposed to a mere woman coming in as prime minister, especially one with such close links to the West.

Aware that Iftikhar Chaudhry would waste little time in reopening the numerous and very well-documented corruption cases against his main rival, Zardari, the leader of the Pakistani Muslim League (Nawaz), Nawaz Sharif, has been relentless in demanding the reinstatement of judges, a considerable change from the suspicion and contempt with which he treated the judiciary during his stints in national power.

Sharif has forged a hidden alliance with fellow Punjabi Ashfaq Kayani, chief of army staff, and the two together have steadily re-secured the dominance of this ethnic group, which had been diluted by Musharraf since he secured U.S. backing in 2001. A reinstated Chief Justice Chaudhry would form the third leg of this Punjabi troika and could be expected to ensure a fresh general election in which Sharif would emerge the winner.

Until that time, they can be expected to continue to place concealed traps for the present PPP-led administration. The only escape for the "Sindhi" party would be to team up with the now-leaderless followers of Musharraf in the National Assembly, although such support might result in a withdrawal of backing from the moderates in the North-West Frontier province.

This emerging Sindhi-Punjabi rivalry is at the root of much of the present political flux in Pakistan. Aware that he was a target of this lobby, Musharraf had been making efforts to limit the dominance of Punjabis in the higher echelons of the armed forces, promoting officers with a Baloch, Pashtun or Mohajir background over the heads of their Punjabi rivals. The Punjabi lobby challenged Musharraf through the chief justice, who never would have acted in such a "courageous" manner without the tacit backing of Kayani and other Punjabi corps commanders.

If the script they have written works out, there will be a speedy reinstatement of the judges sacked by Musharraf, followed by the reinstatement of the cases against Zardari. Aware of this danger, the chances are high that the cornered PPP leader may seek to install himself as president, giving him direct access to at least a few of the levers of power. Gilani, Sharif and Kayani would want the job to go to someone far less knowledgeable about the political game than the astute Zardari, and preferably from the secessionist province of Balochistan.

In all the brouhaha, what about the "war on terror"? The short answer is: Who cares? For the Pakistani army, and more so the ISI, the so-called war has been merely a means to wring out more funds from U.S. taxpayers. In exchange for an average of around $12 billion each year since 2001, the army makes a few well-publicized sweeps of the frontier regions and gets into some firefights. However, the financial and logistical help given by the army to the newly expanded Taliban continues, albeit through cutouts such as tribal elders and non-governmental organizations. Had Pakistan truly cut off such assistance, NATO by now would have secured Afghanistan, rather than be fighting what has become a losing battle against the Taliban.

By 2003, mainly because of the support given by George W. Bush and Tony Blair -- backing as uncritical as that demonstrated by the pair when shown concocted evidence of the links between Saddam Hussein and Islamic extremists -- the Pakistan army had gotten NATO to sideline almost all the key anti-Taliban commanders, replacing them with substitutes who were either incapable of responding to this fanatic force or in recessed sympathy with them.

From the end of that year, after the neutering of the anti-Taliban native fighters, NATO has been on the losing side in Afghanistan. Given their backing of the concept of Afghanistan as a "secure rear area" for Pakistan and the exclusive (to Pakistan) link to Central Asia, neither Kayani nor Sharif is likely to pose the challenge to the mujahedin that Musharraf did for the final two years of his nine years in office. Nor will Gilani, who has displaced his nominal boss Zardari as the PPP's link to the army and the ISI.

NATO is following in the path of the Soviet military, which ignored the safe haven given to the jihadis by Pakistan, forgetting that the epicenter of the jihad is in Lahore and Peshawar rather than in Khost or Kandahar. Until the Pakistani army feels genuine pain for its policy of private support for the Taliban, that force will spread across most of Afghanistan by 2012, given present rates of success.

Already, throughout the country, there has been a return within hundreds of thousands of families to the hard-line practices of the religious extremists. Only carrying the war into Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, and returning to Donald Rumsfeld's policies of empowering all the Taliban foes without looking too closely at their table manners, can stop the present slide toward a NATO retreat from Afghanistan within two years.


(M.D. Nalapat is vice chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO peace chair and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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