Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

An American friend

Asif Zardari has presented himself as America's man in the "war on terror". It won't do him much good in Pakistan, writes Graham Usher in Islamabad

For President Asif Ali Zardari the 63rd UN General Assembly was to be the stage where he recast himself from being Benazir Bhutto's "dodgy" widower to a statesman able to lead Pakistan. It is a measure of the challenge that the better he was received in America, India and Afghanistan, the worse he went down in Pakistan. Most Pakistanis -- rightly or wrongly -- blame all three countries for the multiple crises roiling their nation.

There were successes during the trip. He marshalled a 12- nation consortium -- the so-called "Friends of Pakistan" -- to rescue an economy in meltdown: on 27 September the country's foreign currency reserves were $8.1 billion, barely enough to pay two months' imports. Inflation was 25 per cent, a 30-year high.

The United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia are likely not to allow their nuclear-armed ally to go to the wall, if only because of the fear that the country may then fall into the hands of Taliban and Al-Qaeda. But all are aware their cure will be painful: "the cost of living for the poor will be driven up, development expenditure will be slashed and meaningful reform will be shelved," commented one newspaper editorial. It also means the government's promises of a more re-distributive economy will be parked.

Pakistanis expected as much. It was their leader's attempt to ingratiate himself with the US administration that really stuck in the throat. For example, in an interview with the Washington Post on 27 September Zardari said the world was a "safer place because of George W Bush", an opinion that even the US president doesn't share. Zardari also said the "axis of evil is growing", an apparent throwback to the demonic triad of Iraq, Iran and North Korea Bush invoked in 2003 to justify the Iraq invasion.

This is incomprehensible. Pakistan opposed the 2003 war on Iraq. And it is engaged in negotiations with "brotherly" Iran for a gas pipeline to assuage an energy crisis that is every bit as deep as the economic malaise. "Does President Zardari even know what he is talking about when he makes such bizarre pronouncements?" asked one Pakistani analyst in exasperation.

However, it was the interview Zardari gave to the Wall Street Journal on 4 October that may incur the greatest damage at home. The newspaper painted an accurate picture of a country in the grip of an Islamic insurgency, at odds with its Indian and Afghan neighbours and endowed with mass, anti-American sentiment, stoked recently by strikes inside Pakistan by US forces based in Afghanistan.

Zardari was eager to dispel all such impressions. "I am an American friend," he said. As for India, that country "has never been a threat to Pakistan. I, for one, and our democratic government are not scared of Indian influence abroad."

This will be news to Pakistan's 600,000-strong army. Pakistan has fought three wars with India since partition, two of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir. If there is one single factor that explains the army's preeminence in Pakistan, it is the perception that "Hindu" India constitutes an existential threat to the Muslim state. And while a faltering peace process has been in place since 2004, the perception remains.

Delhi recently accused Pakistan's intelligence agencies of bombing its embassy in Kabul in July. Islamabad says India gives covert backing to Islamic and nationalist insurgents inside Pakistan. Peace may be discussed at the UN and other fora but, in Afghanistan and Kashmir, war continues by proxy. For most Pakistanis Zardari's statement -- even if desired -- belongs to fantasy.

What may not be fantastic was Zardari's apparent admission that his government had given consent to American ground and air strikes on Pakistani soil. "We have an understanding [with the US], in the sense that we're going after an enemy together," he said.

The strikes have left more than 50 dead in the last month and caused outrage across Pakistan. In a rare public disavowal the army has denied "any agreement or understanding whereby [US forces] are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border". Once more it was left to minders to pull Zardari out of the hole he had dug for himself. "At all forums the president has clearly asked all allies and forces to respect Pakistan's territorial integrity," said Information Minister Sherry Rehman on 6 October. But the damage was done.

Can it be undone? On 8 October Zardari convened a joint "in-camera" session of parliament to try to evolve a national consensus on how to fight Islamic militancy in Pakistan. Legislators heard briefings from military and intelligence chiefs about the Taliban-led insurgencies on the Afghan frontier. It may herald the kind of national debate on militancy that has long been the demand of Pakistan's opposition parties. It is also the wish of the Pakistan army, says analyst Zaffar Abbas.

"What the army wants is for all representatives of the people to back their military action against the militants. Then soldiers can fight with greater zeal, with a bigger commitment to deal with extremism. Otherwise the soldiers will continue to be demoralised -- uncertain whether they are fighting a just war".

For many analysts Zardari should have had the debate before his trip to America. Now the public perception may be that while lawmakers can discuss the insurgency, policy will have already been set, by Pakistan's American friend.

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