Pakistan's Zardari defiant in fight for political survival

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 1, 2010 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Under pressure from the military, the judiciary and the Pakistani news media, Pakistan's pro-Western president, Asif Ali Zardari, is fighting for his survival, while relations with the U.S. are rocked by tensions that led Pakistan to close down a major resupply route to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.

The government came in for scathing criticism after its poor performance in Pakistan's unprecedented floods this summer, which stranded millions of mostly poor Pakistanis without government support. Now it's practically paralyzed by the infighting and pressures that have put it under siege, officials said.

A senior Pakistani official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, warned the army that it would lose all U.S. aid if it attempted to push Zardari from power.

"Any fingerprints of the army on change, however remote and behind the scenes, would invite Kerry-Lugar sanctions, and renewed skepticism about Pakistan's future as a state, especially at a time when international pressures in relation to terrorist safe havens are mounting."

He was referring to U.S. legislation drafted by Sens. John Kerry D-Mass. and Richard Lugar R-Ind., the chairman and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The official acknowledged that Zardari had met Monday with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the military chief of staff, and that Kayani spoke "positively" of the need for cooperation in what "from our understanding" wasn't a confrontation. The official added that "the military would benefit from helping the elected civilian leaders overcome their governance inexperience rather than to threaten them."

As the political machinations continued, U.S.-Pakistan relations were rocked this week by the incursion of American helicopters from Afghanistan into Pakistani territory, in pursuit of Taliban militants, resulting in the deaths of three soldiers according to Islamabad.

Pakistan closed the main border crossing at Torkham Thursday to NATO supplies, and it remained closed Friday, in apparent retaliation for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers. Friday, two separate convoys of trucks carrying supplies, for NATO troops across the border in landlocked Afghanistan, were attacked as they traveled up through southern Pakistan and set on fire. A driver and his assistant burned alive in one of the incidents.

Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, told a conference in Washington Friday: "It's inconceivable to me that the closing of the routes — the alleged closing, which isn't a full closing anyway — would continue more than a short period of time."

The political crisis means that urgent work on recovering from the floods and other important government business has been sidelined, leading to a paralysis in Islamabad, officials said. Western allies, including the U.S. are concerned that government isn't functioning at the very time when the country is asking for billions of dollars in aid to cope with the damage from floods, while nuclear-armed Pakistan's stability and co-operation are considered vital for progress in Afghanistan and the fight against al Qaida.

Zardari is doggedly holding on to office and will try not to ditch his key allies under what he sees as undemocratic pressure, say some of those close to the president, though many within his own party believe that he has little choice but to sacrifice the least competent of those around him.

"The government is not going to yield to a combination of jihadis, journalists and judges," said an official close to Zardari, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue with media. "We are not going to do anything because 'they' tell us to."

"This is a question of who will run Pakistan and how," said the official. "It's a question of whether we will ever get to political maturity."

Zardari, in a fighting speech Friday to his party's core base in the southern province of Sindh, acknowledged that forces had ganged up against him.

"Political orphans had joined hands with political actors to destabilize the representative government. But they are doomed to be frustrated. The people of Pakistan will never let them succeed in their designs," he said, according to a statement from his office.

According to close aides, Zardari thinks that if his government is overthrown, he will become a martyr and therefore stronger, whereas in office he will continue to hemorrhage support. His fatalism may be based on a basic problem of managerial competence.

"I don't know if he (Zardari) knows how to fix the governance issues," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist with Pakistan's Dawn newspaper. "Potentially, an unconstitutional ouster for him will ensure that the party survives."

Pakistan's military has ruled the country for most of its existence. In the previous period of democratic rule, in 1990s, four elected governments were toppled before the end of their terms, through military interventions, including two governments of Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party.

However, many analysts think that the military has no appetite for seizing power at this time, instead it is pushing for the existing government to improve or an alternative administration to emerge through a re-alignment in parliament — the Peoples Party rules through a coalition and does not enjoy a majority.

The Pakistan Peoples Party, a secular, left-leaning organization, think that a right-wing pro-religious media, opposition and the judiciary are trying to oust it, in an ideologically motivated campaign. Last month, the courts revived a case against Zardari, which concerns corruption allegations dating back to the 1990s. The case, adjourned on Monday, resumes next week. Several officials with corruption allegations against them, including the interior minister and the president's "secretary-general," remain in the government, to the anger of the court.

According to some officials, the military has produced a list of names of over a dozen ministers and those running public sector corporations who it wants removed. Others deny any such list exists. One senior Pakistani official, who couldn't be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the U.S. had also put forward six to eight names of government functionaries it has found difficult to work with.

"They (the U.S.) want this government to continue, but with a smaller and better Cabinet," said the official.

According to some tallies, there are some 90 ministers or those with the status of minister. U.S. officials work closely with Pakistani ministries, not only on security issues but also in dispensing $1.5 billion a year in civilian aid, and they're currently cooperating closely over the floods catastrophe. They are known to be frustrated with many of their Pakistani interlocutors.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article from Washington.)

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