Pakistan's Accidental Prime Minister

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Roslan Rahman / AFP / Getty

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani

Yousuf Raza Gilani is the Prime Minister of Pakistan and as such is visiting the U.S. this week. He came to the role via tragedy, elevated from the vacuum created by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister to whom he had long been loyal. Despite Gilani's title, however, it is Bhutto's widower, the controversial Asif Ali Zardari, who is the true power behind Bhutto's People's Party and who has made the bulk of the decisions from his heavily guarded home in a leafy Islamabad neighborhood. Zardari is not shy about his influence, using words like "my government" and referring to himself as a "father" to the People's Party, just as Bhutto was its "mother." But now, Gilani, four months after he was elected Prime Minister, has begun to play a more assertive role.

The reviews so far have been mixed. Gilani, 56, who is from southern Punjab, has a reputation as an understated politician. He "is still adjusting to his role as Prime Minister and discovering the territorial limitations of his office," says political commentator Nusrat Javed. "But recently he has become more confident and more visible." Increased visibility, however, incurs risks, as evidenced by Gilani's first televised address two weeks ago. Dressed in a stiff black coat and flanked by two flags, the Prime Minister hailed the "defeat of dictatorship" and vowed to fulfill his government's many ambitious promises. But he was awkward on air. On occasion, he would turn to the side to speak, facing away from the camera. Then the teleprompter gave up; moments later a shot of the Himalayas filled the screen, as aides scrambled to locate a hard copy of the speech to hand to Gilani.

Riven by internal disputes and weighed down by the pressures of a fast-souring economy, Gilani's coalition government is seen as too weak to act. Indeed, he seems to have only nominal control of the powerful ISI, Pakistan's security and intelligence apparatus, which has a reputation for acting on its own; and he is seen as ceding many prerogatives of the Prime Minister's office to Zardari and to Rehman Malik, Bhutto's security chief who is now, in effect, Pakistan's Minister of the Interior. Says political analyst Talat Masood: "The present government is not in a position to tackle the serious concerns facing this country. It has hardly started to clarify its own position on extremism and terrorism."

As he set off for his first visit to Washington on Saturday, Pakistan's new Prime Minister turned to the crowd gathered on the tarmac to issue a reminder. "This is our own fight. This is our own cause," he said of his country's faltering campaign against militancy. The message is unlikely to inspire many of the Pakistanis he leaves behind. Nor will it calm the anxieties that wait for him in the U.S.

In Pakistan, the visit is widely seen as important, and it has been heavily followed by the media. It will be the first time that the Bush Administration will welcome a civilian leader of the Pakistani government. "Until now, President Bush has only ever dealt with President [Pervez] Musharraf," says Masood. "Gilani will try and present himself as a democratic alternative and win support for the new dispensation. The United States has always preferred dictators over democrats, and a lot of that has to do with the geostrategic importance that Pakistan has."

The three-day visit, which includes meetings with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, comes at a time of renewed frustration with Islamabad's efforts to tame al-Qaeda and the Taliban in its wild North-West Frontier Province. A sample of what Gilani may hear when he steps into the Oval Office on Monday was on offer earlier this week. In the latest of a flurry of warnings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that "more needs to be done" to choke off the flow of militants across the border from Pakistan. "We understand that it's difficult, we understand that the North-West Frontier area is difficult, but militants cannot be allowed to organize there and to plan there and to engage across the border," she told reporters during a visit to Australia.

Much of this exasperation, echoed by Western diplomats in Islamabad, stems from the government's decision to negotiate a series of peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban in the rugged tribal areas and across swathes of the North-West Frontier Province. "It is clear that the deals have led to a rise in cross-border attacks," says a senior Western diplomat, echoing other critics, "and [those in Islamabad] just seem to be turning a blind eye to them."

By contrast, the Musharraf years held obvious appeal for Washington. As a man in control of both the army and the government, the former army chief wielded greater power, and when necessary, he could be counted on to resist public opinion. Gilani's struggling civilian government is deeply susceptible to public opinion, with recent polls consistently recording majorities hostile to the use of military force. A survey published by the International Republican Institute last week revealed that 71% supported the negotiations with militants, 61% urged "development and education" as a means of countering the threat and a mere 9% were in favor of the use of military force.

A few days after his awkward TV appearance, Gilani traveled to Peshawar, where he sought to enlist the support of tribal elders from South Waziristan, the mountainous base of Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud. "I ask you people to tell me how to deal with elements bent upon militancy," he pleaded, an elaborate turban on his head. The use of military force, he told them, will only be a last resort. Many fear that it may be resorted to only when it is too late.