Militancy dogs Pakistan's new president
KARACHI - Asif Ali Zardari, who convincingly won presidential elections at the weekend, brings to the office a distinctly checkered past, but he has the potential to become Pakistan's most powerful president ever - unless militants have their way.
Zardari will have his finger on the nuclear button, he will be supreme commander of the armed forces and have the power to dissolve parliament and the provincial assemblies, besides being leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the lead party in the ruling coalition government in Islamabad and in two provinces.
Pro-Western Zardari's rapid rise to power followed active mediation by London and Washington, which raises serious doubts over whether the process was meant for the benefit of US designs in the South Asian "war on terror" theater at the expense of the domestic affairs of the country.
Zardari shot into prominence when his wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated last December and he took over her PPP as co-chairman. He subsequently spearheaded the drive to oust former president Pervez Musharraf and led the PPP to victory in national polls in February.
As Zardari looks to the future, he will put behind him immediate allegations of electoral fraud at the weekend and the longer-standing stigma that hangs over his head through allegations of business malpratices during the two terms of Bhutto's premiership (1988-1990; 1993-1996). For these he spent 11 years in prison, and although he was never convicted he is still widely referred to as "Mr 10%".
All that matters now is that Zardari is the man of the hour and as president is destined to play a significant role not only in the "war on terror" but also in building peaceful relations with India. And along with Turkey, Pakistan wants to play a leading role in the Organization of Islamic Countries in developing a peace formula for the recognition of and peaceful coexistence with Israel.
The author of this broader role for Pakistan is Professor Husain Haqqani, the country's ambassador to Washington, a role Bhutto had chosen for him as a loyal colleague. Haqqani is also campaigning for Zalmay Khalilzad, currently the US ambassador to the United Nations, to become the next president of Afghanistan.
Haqqani has served as director of the Institute for International Relations at Boston University and as co-director of the Hudson Institute's Project on the Future of the Muslim World. He has testified in congressional committees and worked with former US president Jimmy Carter on Middle Eastern issues. He also actively engages the Department of State, the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the US Central Command.
Zardari, Haqqani and their colleagues might have a fine vision for their country and the world in general, but the crucial issue is whether Pakistan's military establishment will ever allow Zardari to play a key role in which it is not involved.
During the nearly nine years of Musharraf's presidency, the Foreign Office and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) would draft policies concerning Afghanistan, Kashmir and the Middle East and officials would (hopefully) carry them out. Now, most policies will come directly through Washington via the Pakistani ambassador.
However, given the margin of Zardari's presidential victory (he won 481 votes out of 702), the military is expected to remain under his thumb. Significantly, this poll marked the end of the former "king's party" that once backed Musharraf - the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam fragmented, with major defections to the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and even to the PPP.
One of Zardari's first moves after being sworn in on Tuesday is likely to be to change the director general of the ISI, Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj, as well as the directors of internal and external security and regional ISI heads.
Bringing the ISI under civilian rather than military authority is one of Washington's long-standing desires as the agency often has a mind of its own and elements in it sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaeda have acted against the aims of the "war on terror".
The PPP-led government did try to bring the ISI under the Ministry of Interior two months ago, but following a strong reaction from the army the government backed off. This time, given Zardari's landslide victory, the army is unlikely to confront the government.
Militants, however, will confront the government, with another sharp reminder on Saturday of the difficult road ahead. More than 30 people were killed and dozens injured when an explosives-laden truck blew up at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province.
The timing of this attack on election day, the latest in a string of bombings over the past few months, sends a clear message to Zardari, who, as president, will also oversee the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in which the militants have strong bases and from where the Taliban launch operations into Afghanistan.
A top security official told Asia Times Online that the actual plan was a massive attack on the provincial assembly in Peshawar where voting was taking place for the new president, but the truck, carrying 60 kilograms of explosives, was held up at the check point.
Apart from fighting militancy, Zardari's government has a struggle on its hands in the form of an ailing economy. Well before Zardari's election, the US transferred US$365 million to Pakistan as reimbursement for its efforts in fighting terrorism in the FATA. The country's foreign reserves have dropped to $9 billion; in April they stood at $16 billion. Saudi Arabia has expressed its willingness to grant a one-year extension in oil credit facilities to enable Pakistan to import oil on deferred payments, or to accept a grant worth $500 million.
Zardari's real test, though, will be in fighting militancy and it is through this war that he will stand or fall, carrying with him all of Washington's hopes and expectations.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]