After setbacks, Pakistani president may have weathered storm

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2010 

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's U.S.-backed president, Asif Ali Zardari, appears to have survived a campaign to oust him, a storm that had threatened to sidetrack the country from its battle with Islamic extremists.

Although there were predictions in the last few months of 2009 that he was finished, Zardari has defended himself aggressively in recent days and won some political allies. The news media and the judiciary had appeared to be closing in on him, but in a world of political shadow boxing, many analysts and politicians think that Pakistan's powerful military has been behind the drive to force the president out of office.

"I think he is fighting back admirably," said Abida Hussain, a senior member of Zardari's Pakistan People's Party. "He threw down the gauntlet, fair and square, and the conspirators, if any, seem to be backing off."

The confrontation had sparked fears that the army, which has ruled Pakistan for most of its existence, would intervene again, perhaps to force fresh elections when the country is under pressure from the Obama administration to launch an offensive in North Waziristan, a vital Pakistani refuge for al Qaida and the Taliban.

The army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has let it be known repeatedly that he's not interested in getting involved in politics, but the Pakistan People's Party, the country's largest political party, remains wary. Under pressure from Washington, Zardari and the country's civilian leaders have pushed the military for greater action against Islamic extremists.

"If you have the civilians and the military at loggerheads, it creates a more confusing picture for the Americans, an extra layer of uncertainty," said Cyril Almeida, a newspaper columnist for Dawn, a Pakistani daily newspaper. "And the fight in Pakistan is moving from counterinsurgency to the more delicate phase of counter-terrorism, for which you need co-ordination between agencies and between the civilian and military apparatus."

The importance of North Waziristan, in northwest Pakistan, was underscored Wednesday by another U.S. missile strike in the area, which is a stronghold for the Haqqani network, considered a close ally of al Qaida and the most dangerous insurgent group in Afghanistan. It was the fifth such strike since a suicide bomber killed a group of CIA officers in the adjacent Afghan province of Khost last week. According to news reports, 12 people were killed in the latest strike.

Separately, a suicide bomber hit a military camp Wednesday in the Pakistani portion of the Kashmir region, which Pakistan and India both claim, killing three soldiers.

Retaliatory terrorist attacks have killed more than 600 people since Pakistan launched a military offensive this fall against the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan. The South Waziristan operation and a similar offensive in the Swat valley earlier last year were possible largely because the civilians and military worked together, swaying public opinion.

In a series of pugnacious speeches and pronouncements since Dec. 27, Zardari has said that democracy in Pakistan is in danger, without spelling out the source of the threat.

"Whether it's an internal conspiracy against democracy or external conspiracy against Pakistan, we will fight them with the support of the masses," he said in a speech Saturday.

Many members of Pakistan's military establishment despise Zardari for his past alleged corruption and for interfering in sensitive security policy since he was elected in 2008. Given that the last period of military rule ended only that year and had become deeply unpopular, the army is thought to be wary of seizing power again. The chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, didn't return calls seeking comment.

The Supreme Court appeared to deal the final blow to Zardari last month when it ruled that an amnesty that had ended pending corruption cases against the president and some ministers was unconstitutional.

After the court verdict Dec. 16, however, no one resigned from the government, and Zardari's political party decided to fight the graft charges in the courts. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who some speculated could be separated from Zardari, leaped to the defense of the president.

Zardari also got strong backing from the leader of the Awami National Party, which runs the provincial government in Pakistan's insurgency-plagued North West Frontier Province. In recent days, three of the four provincial parliaments passed resolutions in favor of the president.

Crucially, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, whom a military coup ousted from his post as prime minister in 1999, hasn't called for Zardari's resignation and has warned against unconstitutional moves. "Our problems are the gift of dictatorship," Sharif said Wednesday.

"The politicians as a whole are behaving very maturely," said Ayaz Amir, a member of parliament with Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N. "It's because of the perception on the part of the political class that if the (democratic) system goes, then everything goes down the drain."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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