Zardari Tries to Keep His Distance from US

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari meets with President Bush in New York City on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2008

It was supposed to be a triumphant week for Asif Ali Zardari. Inaugurated as Pakistan's new President on Saturday, the sharp-suited, silver-tongued and often controversial widower of Benazir Bhutto was then to fly to New York City to make his debut on the world stage by addressing the United Nations General Assembly. Instead, he finds himself struggling to maintain his political footing in the face of contending pressures that threaten to knock him off balance.

Hours after his inauguration, "joy was turned into grief," as he put it, as a massive explosion ripped through the Marriott Hotel in the heart of his capital, killing 53 people and injuring over 250 in what local media dubbed "Pakistan's 9/11." The shock and anger provoked by the attack did spark a long-overdue debate on the increasingly lethal threat posed by al-Qaeda and Taliban militants sheltering in the mountainous tribal areas along the Afghan border and in the scenic Swat valley — not just to NATO forces in Afghanistan but also to Pakistan itself.

Still, Zardari finds himself precariously balancing, on the one hand, growing demands from Washington for more sustained and decisive action against the extremists, and on the other, widespread opposition at home to Pakistan's involvement in the Bush Administration's "war on terror." Former President Pervez Musharraf once described it as a delicate art of "tightrope walking"; the problem for Zardari is that the rope is fraying and the winds are growing fierce. According to a June poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, 71% of Pakistanis oppose Pakistan's cooperation with the U.S. against Islamist militants. For critics of the policy, it has always been "an American war" forced on an unwilling country, and they blame it for bringing the Afghan conflict over the border and encouraging a wave of terrorism in Pakistan's major cities.

Recent American actions have done little to make Zardari's life easier. Two days after the Marriott bombing, U.S. helicopters seeking to cross into Pakistan were repelled by gunfire from Pakistani troops and local tribesmen. An earlier ground assault in a remote village in South Waziristan had allegedly killed up to 20 civilians, and it sparked a chorus of criticism led by army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, who vowed to protect Pakistan's borders "at all costs."

Washington sees little choice but to step up operations inside Pakistan, seeing them as essential to reversing the security decline in Afghanistan where, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, "time is running out." Pakistan has failed to wipe out the sanctuaries in the tribal areas from which Taliban insurgents routinely stage attacks on NATO forces across the border. And after allegedly discovering evidence of the Inter Services Intelligence agency's abiding ties to militant networks, Washington no longer trusts the Pakistani military with its operational intelligence. The U.S. also believes that the Pakistani army, equipped for conventional warfare against India, is ill suited to the counterinsurgency mission in the tribal areas.

The problem for Zardari is that U.S. impatience with Pakistan's efforts against the militants risks undermining his government's efforts to win the allegiance of the tribes along the border in order to isolate the extremists, and to win political support more broadly. U.S. actions also complicate Zardari's relationship with the army, which has been a lot more strident in its opposition to such operations than the government has been. This has created pressure on Zardari to amplify his own opposition to U.S. attacks, which he this week termed a "violation of the U.N. charter." The Pakistani leader urged restraint from the U.S. during his first meeting with President Bush, on Tuesday in New York. According to leading Pakistani analysts, Zardari's prospects depend on him shaking off the growing perception at home that he is merely acting on Washington's orders. The Marriott bombing, they say, is his opportunity to launch a "homegrown" strategy to combat militancy, making it "Pakistan's own war."

As the militants launch more random attacks on Pakistani civilians, there are strong signs that growing numbers of Pakistanis are ready to embrace the fight against terrorism as their own. "It may have started off as America's war, but this is now clearly Pakistan's fight," says retired general turned liberal analyst Talat Masood, echoing a widely held view in the wake of the Marriott attack. To turn that sentiment into an effective campaign, however, Masood says the government will need support from previously ambivalent political parties — and to do that, it will have to demonstrate its independence from Washington.

Zaffar Abbas, an expert on militancy and a senior editor at Dawn newspaper, concurs. "If it is perceived to be an American war, the question being raised is, Why should we become a part of it?" he says. "The realization is not there in Washington that the more they talk about their own war, their demands asking for more to be done, it has a very negative impact within the country. If the policy instead comes from parliament, even if it is diluted to some extent, it will be Pakistan's own policy. It will lift the morale of confused troops and can galvanize the support of the people."

Opinion polls during the previous regime revealed that as General turned President Musharraf grew unpopular, so did the army he led and his U.S. backers. Over the past year, anti-American sentiment has become widespread even among secular liberals who felt betrayed by Washington's continuing to back a shopworn military dictator in the face of democratic opposition. The strong skepticism toward U.S. methods and intentions in Pakistan's civil society and its mass media means that Zardari may struggle to build and maintain support for a more muscular response to the extremists.

Over the past six months, the government's focus has been elsewhere — on internal political wrangling and the pressures of an economy on the verge of meltdown. It has initiated no national discussion in parliament on the issue, nor has it moved to draw in former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose rising popularity and clout among conservative elements could prove a decisive factor. Laments Abbas: "The mistake they are making is the same as General Musharraf made by not bringing on political forces [or] generating [supportive] public opinion, and [by] resorting to unilateral actions."

(See photos of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province here.)