The media missed the story on this week’s “trilateral” summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and the Presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari. Admittedly, speeches made by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following the meeting were nearly devoid of content. Reporters had little to work with. However, two significant goals were accomplished by the trilateral meeting, just by having the three men photographed together.
First was an emphasis on the central role of the United States in what Washington is now calling the “AfPak” conflict. China and Russia both want influence in Central Asia as well, and the still-nascient Shanghai Cooperation Organization is held out as an alternative to America’s “unilateral” approach. After this meeting, the appearance is that Afghanistan and Pakistan accept the United States as the sole foreign arbiter of their internal problems.
A second achievement was the public acceptance by the Pakistani President that the Afghan war has mutated into the “AfPak” war. Yes, Mr. Obama, you may now include Pakistan in your theater of operations and consider it to be one and the same war, just as you say, Sir. It is, after all, your war.
A weaker leader than Asif Zardari could not be imagined. He is not respected or liked by the Pakistani people, and came into power by way of the fact that he is the widower of Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan and daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the most progressive President in Pakistan’s history. The Bhutto family has led the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) since the day its founder, Zulfikar Ali, was executed in 1979 following a military coup.
President Zardari does not share the Bhuttos’ popularity, however. Nicknamed “Mr. 10%,” Zardari is believed to have embezzled $1.5 billion dollars out of the country, and spent seven years in prison following his conviction. When General Pervez Musharraf, another military dictator, resigned from power in August of 2008, Zardari assumed the role of his recently-assassinated wife, and ran virtually unopposed. The New York Times reported that Zalmay Khalilzad, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, had been unofficially advising Asif Ali Zardari during his campaign.
Musharraf himself had come into power in 1999, in a US-backed military coup. Pakistan’s President at the time, Nawaz Sharif, earned America’s emnity by developing and testing nuclear weapons, and nearly using them in a confrontation with India centered in the Kargil district of Kashmir. Sharif fled the country and lived in exile in Saudi Arabia until September of 2007. Upon his return, Sharif was greeted by crowds of supporters. Having instituted a state of emergency and imprisoned numerous political opponents, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, General Musharraf decided it was better to leave Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), alone. Musharraf’s new court barred Nawaz Sharif from holding public office, but permitted him to remain in Pakistan free from arrest. Needless to say, when Asif Zardari ran for President in 2008, there was no real opposition. The PML did not run any candidate and the PPP swept the election.
In the first six month’s of Zardari’s presidency, the relationship between the governments of America and Pakistan has been that of colonial power to colony. Zardari’s support of the American bombing campaign in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, and Pakistani military operations there, both resulting in disproportionate civilian casualties, have infuriated the Pakistani people and put the country on the brink of revolution. As another prominent Pakistani opposition figure, Imran Khan, has noted, “what country bombs its own people?”
To counter this growing insurgency, President Zardari has made some conciliatory moves to address the common grievances. These include reinstating Justice Chaudhry to the Supreme Court, various discussions with Nawaz Sharif on power sharing arrangements, and freeing Maulana Abdul Aziz, leader of the radical Red Mosque, who had been imprisoned since the Pakistani army’s bloody siege of the Mosque in July of 2007. Another, and more controversial gesture was an attempt to negotiate with tribal leaders in regions bordering Afghanistan, to get them to side with the government against the insurgents. These negotiations led to the announcement that Islamic courts would be set up in the troubled Swat region of the frontier, in a program called the Nizam-e-Adl. This step was apparently taken without consulting the Americans, who have now pressured the Pakistani government to retake Swat by force. A humanitarian crisis is in the making, converting hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis into refugees.
Had these gestures been made shortly after Mr. Zardari took office, and had he ignored Washington’s demands to use military force, Pakistan might have recovered from the disasterous rule of General Musharraf. As a reaction to a growing insurgency, however, these moves make Zardari and his government look weak and aimless. This is compounded by the impression that whatever Pakistan does can quickly be overruled by the United States, which can even order the Pakistani military to attack its own people. The image of weakness is made even worse by statements by Obama and others in his administration expressing a lack of confidence in the government it has so long manipulated and shored up.
Which brings us back to yesterday’s meeting. From Pakistan’s perspective, what did it achieve? Pakistan may receive billions more dollars in aid, along with an army of highly-paid consultants who cannot even speak Urdu. (Translators and babysitters are not included in the aid program.) No doubt there will be plenty of pork for Zardari to share
with the Pakistani parliament, and admittedly, this will help to stabilize Mr. 10% in his tenuous role as leader of a failed and failing state. Yet Pakistan will pay a higher price in the long run.
The question at hand is not whether Pakistan is on the verge of a takeover by reactionary religious extremists from Afghanistan. It is not. Conflating the situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan only confuses people. Pakistan is, however, experiencing an extraordinary upheaval of popular discontent. In a word, it’s the emergence of democracy. Left on its own, the Pakistani army could probably crush the resistence. But with Washington’s help, nearly anything is possible. The real question is, what form will the next series of political changes take.
PAUL WOLF is a lawyer in Washington DC, practicing international and human rights law. He can be reached at email@example.com