An unlikely survivor


Senior Member
May 6, 2009
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By Farhan Bokhari and James Lamont

Published: September 16 2009 03:00 | Last updated: September 16 2009 03:00

Even the shortest encounter with Asif Ali Zardari leaves the visitor with one word ringing in their ears: money.

As Pakistan's president prepares for a summit next week in New York with Barack Obama, the US president, and Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, his country's urgent financial needs are top of his mind.

He will use the meeting to secure greater international financial backing, arguing only this can deliver victory against Islamist militants and put the largely agrarian economy on a better footing. The former high-living businessman is fond of big numbers: he reckons the bill will come to somewhere between $50bn and $100bn.

Meeting Mr Obama and Mr Brown is about credibility as well as cash. When he came to office a year ago, many Pakistanis thought the widower of Benazir Bhutto,former prime minister, would be lucky to last three months in the job. "People say that this is not a banana republic, but rather a mango republic. Who would have said six years ago that Asif Ali Zardari will become president?" asks Asma Jahangir, human rights lawyer.

Yet 12 months on, the US and its allies, despairing of the worsening situation in neighbouring Afghanistan, credit Mr Zardari with a chance of regenerating the state, reversing the militant advance and bringing stability to one of the most strategically important countries in the world.

Political commentators in Islamabad now predict that the man viewed as a hapless acolyte, tainted by corruption charges, may complete a rare full four-year term as an elected Pakistani leader. The country has reached a rare state of equilibrium between its accidental president, a half-competent prime minister, a head of the army prepared to stay in barracks and an opposition prepared to bide its time.

The cautious optimism is felt on the streets of Islamabad and Lahore, where fears of attack have receded, to financial markets, enjoying a modest recovery. Some of this is thanks to aid money and foreign investment. An $11.3bn International Monetary Fund rescue package is in place. Donors including the UK, Saudi Arabia and Japan have pledged a further $5.5bn; the US Congress is poised to approve legislation providing $1.5bn a year.

Mr Zardari expresses delight at this. "Given the severity of the international security challenge, and the associated spill-over effects that Pakistan faces, the country needs maximum support from the international community," he told the Financial Times. "This should translate into not just a higher quantum of assistance but also higher quality of aid - Pakistan needs more grant assistance than loans; soft terms for assistance in the form of loans, and less 'tied' aid."

Pakistan seeks the kind of assistance extended to Iraq and Afghanistan; delay will only strengthen extremist forces aligned against Islamabad, Washington and Nato forces battling Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents, he says. Ever the optimist, in his darkly lit study in the presidential palace in Islamabad's Red Zone, he says even the region's opium trade could be ended if only the west would pay farmers to turn to other crops.

The international community is well rehearsed in its response to appeals by Mr Zardari and Yusuf Raza Gilani, his prime minister, for development assistance. At the New York summit on September 24, other delegates will steer the president towards regeneration of the state. They want to see strategies to stabilise Pakistan's unruly regions - such as Baluchistan, Waziristan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas - and solve the country's chronic energy shortages. Allies are also seeking the widening of Pakistan's tiny tax net, steady relations with rival India and the establishment of a donors' trust fund to oversee the disbursement of monies.

Yet relations are not trouble-free. Last week Mr Zardari challenged Mr Obama over Washington's "Af-Pak" strategy, which lumps his country and its more broken neighbour in the same policy framework. To many Pakistanis the alignment is insulting as they consider Afghanistan merely a collection of tribes. The chemistry between Mr Zardari and Hamid Karzai, his Afghan counterpart, is not good, holding up any cross-border initiatives to secure peace.

Dialogue with India also appears out of reach. Delhi's determination to bring to justice the Pakistan-based masterminds of last year's attacks in Mumbai has thwarted Mr Zardari's appeals to Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, to heal the wounds of partition at the end of British rule.

Nonetheless, Mr Zardari's achievements over a turbulent year in office are two-fold. First, he has managed to stay in office - and alive. This is no mean feat in Pakistan. It has been ruled for most of its 62-year history by the military and is a society renowned for opting for revenge over justice.

Moreover, in the past year, Pakistan has never been far from crisis. Within days of Mr Zardari's appointment, the Marriott Hotel in central Islamabad was blown up. New fronts were opened up by militants in Malakand in the north and Pakistani Punjab. The Swat valley, one of the country's best-known tourist destinations, was captured by the Taliban. Daily casualty reports continue to flood in from skirmishes on the Afghan border.

Pakistan's civilian government has been criticised for lack of vision. But few have ambitions to challenge Mr Zardari, when the country faces an insurgency and the economy is weak. The military, led by General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, tolerates the leadership and has no desire to take over. "The paradox is that an unpopular leader has become indispensable," says Talat Masood, a former general and defence expert.

Mr Zardari's second achievement is a partial reorientation of Pakistan's perception of threat. For decades, India was identified as the enemy. But in recent months, Taliban encroachment into Swat and attacks on Lahore, the second largest city, have persuaded the army and civil society that home-grown militants pose a powerful threat. They have decided to do something about it. The army, traditionally reluctant to confront militants, cleared Taliban fighters from Swat and is gearing up for an offensive in Waziristan, likely early next year. Now the challenge is to extend civilian administration into these areas. Efforts to put a provincial structure into the northern areas of Gilgit and Baltistan and bring parts of the Fata under greater control are raising hopes that the Pakistani state is slowly regenerating.

The neutralisation of two of Mr Zardari's biggest adversaries has also helped bring a sense of calm. The killing in a drone attack of Baitullah Mehsud, a terrorist mastermind and one of Pakistan's most wanted men, has lifted a dark spectre from the state. The expected wave of retaliatory suicide bombings has failed to materialise, giving hope that the militant menace may be waning. "Due to his death the Taliban leadership is in disarray," Mr Zardari claims. "The major suicide bomb network and Taliban patronage has been disrupted. The acts of terror have considerably decreased in the border area."

Almost as great a threat was a political battle this year that Mr Zardari lost yet survived. A stand-off with the judiciary and Nawaz Sharif, his main adversary, brought demonstrators on to the streets. A climb-down threatened to strip him of enhanced presidential powers and give Mr Sharif the upper hand. But there has been no grand confrontation. "Before it seemed that Zardari was not liking the job. Now he's more comfortable," says one western diplomat in Islamabad. "He's done a brilliant job politically - except for the confrontation with Nawaz [Sharif]. Governance was always thought to be the weakness but actually it is getting better."

Mr Zardari would claim a third success: the stabilisation of the economy. Foreign exchange reserves have doubled to $14bn and inflation has fallen from 24 per cent to 11 per cent.

Some, jaundiced by Pakistan's blighted history, predict the president's self-assuredness will not last. One of his confidantes suspects the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the military-run secret service, will use violence to try and derail Pakistan from its civilian-led state-building, and plunge the country back into fresh uncertainty.

On paper, Mr Zardari has constitutional control of the army. But it is an authority he dare not put to test. During the Swat campaign, the government stepped aside to leave the mission to the military. Some believe the army sees the president as an irritant, speaking out of line over peace with India and strategy on the deployment of the country's nuclear weapons, but not as a threat so long as his popularity remains low. Despite his political survival, he does not command widespread support. "Zardari knows what he is," says Ms Jehangir. "He knows that people don't like him. [His predecessor General Pervez] Musharraf thought he was God's gift to Pakistan. But Zardari is there by default."

That is apparent in Pakistan's presidential palace, which has the feel of a newly liberated military billet. The presence of Gen Musharraf and some of his forebears exudes from its lofty halls. The lobby is lined with showcases filled with objects celebrating national pride. In one is a signed photograph of Pakistan's first woman astronaut, in another a gold-plated automatic rifle, in a third is a model of a locally built jet fighter.

There, as if by accident among the trophies, is a silver model of the Santa Maria, the slight flagship that braved the Atlantic waves to land Christopher Columbus and his crew on the shores of the Americas. Allies sense that Mr Zardari, like the Santa Maria, may yet make it to the far shore. / UK - An unlikely survivor

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