The Imran Khan Phenomenon (Foreign Policy)

For ForeignPolicy.com, I profile Imran Khan, rising Pakistani politician and chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf party. Click here to read it.

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What’s going on with Zardari?

Here’s my hypothesis on what’s really going on with President Asif Ali Zardari:

Zardari’s heart is in poor condition. He may have had a heart attack or doctors detected severe blockage in his arteries. As a result, he’s had to leave the country for Dubai (possibly en route to London) to get medical care of a higher quality than what’s available in Pakistan.

Rather than being honest and forthcoming, Zardari’s spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, did what most Pakistani government officials do to their people: obscure the truth. He said Zardari is in Dubai for a routine medical checkup.

Having met with the prime minister and Senate chairman (who is first in line to succeed the president or temporarily take his place when he or she is abroad)  this weekend, it appears that something serious was going on.

That was pretty obvious to members of the Pakistani media. Some Pakistani journalists have it out for Zardari. And sensationalism results in higher ratings, higher advertising rates, and more money for media conglomerates.

So given the uncertainty of the situation — enabled by Babar not telling the truth — some Pakistani journalists took the opportunity to add some masala (spice) to the story and give Zardari trouble by claiming that there was a political element to Zardari’s sudden departure from the country. Zardari, they claimed, was being ushered out by the army in a “soft coup” and would resign within 48 hours.

Now that makes little sense. It would be difficult to hide the fact that Zardari was being pushed (illegally) out of office by the army. The army would then be condemned by a wide set of actors, including Western governments, for subverting the constitution. Zardari in exile would then play the role of political martyr, stirring up his currently disenchanted party base and possibly even do really well in the next elections.

Kayani is not one to act brashly. He wouldn’t push Zardari out right now. A more opportune moment would be at the height of a political crisis in which Zardari is the target of intense pressure from multiple political actors, while the army remains silent publicly to maintain the veneer of being apolitical. Such a moment could arise in the coming months as the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, emboldened by the Memogate scandal, presses forward with its campaign to force Zardari’s resignation and the Wikileaks organization releases critical information on Swiss bank accounts of elite Pakistanis and Indians, which most likely includes Zardari.

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Gilani Gambles by Siding with Kayani

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani addressed Pakistan’s National Assembly tonight in Islamabad on issues surrounding the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden. His speech, which was in English and began at around 9AM in Washington, was clearly aimed at an American audience. Gilani’s address, with its defensive and nationalist tone, appears to have been significantly influenced by the high military command. He met earlier in the day with Gen. Khalid Shamim Wynne, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee.

The Pakistani military is letting the civilians serve as the public face of the government on this issue, as I noted last night on the John Batchelor Show.  Today,  Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said, “It is believed that people of Pakistan need to be taken into confidence through their honourable elected representatives.”

For the Pakistan Army, this is a multi-front battle.  It perceives it is being attack on all sides: by the U.S. military and intelligence services (quite literally), the Obama administration, the U.S. Congress and media, India (which spoke about  conducting unilateral raids in Pakistan), and critics in Pakistan who are angered at the violation of the country’s sovereignty and/or that bin Laden was hiding in a mid-sized city near the Pakistani heartland.

The army is also deeply concerned about internal dissent.  As a result, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani held a “very frank” question and answer session with army officers from three garrisons in Punjab.

Some in Pakistan have argued that the civilians should proactively use this low point for the army to reshape civil-military dynamics in their favor.  A less risky and perhaps equally efficacious path for the Pakistan Peoples Party would have been to take a back seat and let the military take the heat.  But Gilani has chosen to actively side with the military.  Perhaps it is his nationalist instincts coming in.  He is a son of the soil who has spent no time abroad in exile.  But he risks sinking with the military command.  Alternatively, if he and the military are able to ride this through, Gilani could have earned some brownie points with the military, and a lifeline for his government till the next elections in 2013.

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Attacks on Pro-Taliban Politician Point Toward Intra-Jihadi Divide

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a leading Pakistani Islamist politician, was the target today of a second suicide bombing attack in as many days.  The attacks on Fazl, who heads his own faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam, a pro-Taliban Deobandi party, come days after State Department cables provided by WikiLeaks to The Hindu reveal that he wanted to mediate between the United States and the Taliban outside of Pakistan in 2007.

No group has claimed responsibility for the two atacks, but they are most likely unsuccessful assassination attempts by irreconcilable Pakistani jihadists who disapprove of his attempts to engage the United States and push for a political settlement for the war in Afghanistan.  Fazl, the bearded, burly son of a prominent Pakistani cleric and politician, is known to be a smooth political operator and has been on the Pakistani Taliban’s hit list since 2008.

This week’s attacks on Fazl are the latest in a series of violence that suggest a deepening intra-jihadi war inside Pakistan.  On one side are jihadists aligned with al-Qaeda and its borderless conflict; on the other are jihadists and their supporters who cooperate with the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment and see jihad as an instrument of state policy or believe that the Pakistani state is an effective agent of jihad.

This intra-jihadi conflict is best demonstrated by the recent execution of Colonel Imam,  a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officer who worked with Afghan militants in the 1980s and 1990s but also spoke out against the Pakistani Taliban in recent years.  A Pakistani Taliban video showed the Afghan Taliban supporter being shot at point-blank range as the organization’s amir, Hakimullah Mehsud, watches approvingly.

While the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment (PakMIL) seeks the formal integration of its allies within the Afghan Taliban into the power structure in Afghanistan, it has no such plans inside its own country for the Pakistani Taliban.  A political settlement in Afghanistan could leave the Pakistani Taliban as the odd man out — hence their attacks on those who support the Afghan Taliban but oppose the Pakistani Taliban.

An alternative but far less probable explanation for the attacks on Fazl is that they are intentional near misses by the PakMIL designed to serve as deadly warnings to Fazl to not play his own game and unilaterally engage the United States on the Taliban. According to the State Department cable, Fazl wanted to serve as an intermediary between the United States and the Afghan Taliban — but outside of Pakistan.  This could cut the PakMIL out of the picture, if he was not covertly speaking on its behalf.  As the arrest of Mullah Baradar demonstrates, the PakMIL has reacted and will continue to react strongly when it is believes it is being excluded out of an Afghan settlement.

With that said, the cable is now outdated. Fazl’s outreach to the United States occured nearly five years ago, and in recent months, he appears to have re-aligned with the PakMIL to put pressure on the secular Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).  For the PakMIL, he and his party remain essential counterweights to the ANP in the Pashtun belt and inevitable players in talks with both the Afghan Taliban and reconcilable elements of the Pakistani Taliban.

Fazl has used the attacks as an opportunity to rally his base.  Playing the anti-American card, he blamed the United States and also held his political rivals, the ANP and PPP, responsible for the attacks.  In preparation for possible early parliamentary elections later this year or early next year, Fazl has held large rallies on contentious issues, such as the blasphemy law, and hosted a dinner party with representatives of a broad spectrum of opposition parties.

Ever the political machinator, Fazl is trying to leverage in this life two near-early trips to the next one. Despite his tough public face, the maulana is probably praying that his third strike won’t be coming anytime soon.

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Pakistan Dives into the Persian Gulf

The always-important Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan visited Pakistan this weekend to ensure that the country’s major power brokers are behind Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as the latter faces a possibly Iran-backed domestic uprising from its Shia native majority.

Bandar, the once long-time ambassador to the United States and now national security council chief, sought to avoid a replay of the 1990 Gulf War, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif supported Saudi Arabia and the United States in Iraq war, while Chief of Army Staff Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg publicly called for an Iraq-Iran-Pakistan alliance against the West.

Today, it is the civilian government that is less likely to be on board with Riyadh’s game plan. Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is a pragmatic nationalist aligned with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China.  The Islamabad coalition government is led by the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which has historically had poor relations with Riyadh. Its senior brass consists of many Shia Muslims, the minority Muslim sect hardline Salafis in Saudi Arabia have deep contempt for.  Riyadh has a soft side for the PPP’s rivals: the various center-right Pakistan Muslim League factions, particularly Sharif’s, as well as the army and military intelligence services.  The Saudi king has even expressed his personal disdain for President Asif Ali Zardari, describing him as “rotten” and the major “obstacle” behind Pakistan’s progress, according to State Department cables released by WikiLeaks. Meanwhile, the PPP has sought warmer ties with Iran, which has not improved the party’s standing in Saudi eyes.

But the Saudis are in need and seem to be reevaluating their hostility toward the PPP.  Bandar’s visit comes two weeks after the Saudi army chief’s meeting with Kayani. Riyadh’s concern for the future of Bahrain and potentially even Saudi Arabia’s predominantly-Shia eastern corridor provides the PPP with an opportunity to mollify Saudi antagonism, ease domestic pressure, and help its always-embattled government continue to crawl toward the finish line and complete its five-year tenure.  The Saudis have reportedly offered Islamabad oil on deferred payment or at concessionary rates, which could assist Zardari in maintaining oil prices at current rates and containing public opposition.  Inflation is at a seven-month low, but the PPP could be hit hard by a rise in global oil prices due to the strife in Libya, and the combination of a traditional summer oil price spike and IMF pressure to reduce subsidies.

Distrust between the PPP and Riyadh is considerable, but money talks. Riyadh’s assistance could give the PPP a temporary lifeline.  However, it cannot save the Islamabad government from from self-destruction. Furthermore, Riyadh is unlikely to let go of an option to support a center-right and Islamist alliance should Pakistan face early elections late this year or early next year.

One should not overestimate the importance of the civilian government in Saudi eyes.  Most likely, Riyadh simply wants all of Pakistan’s major power brokers to be on the same page.  But the most important player for the Saudis is the military.  The Pakistan Army, as one of the Sunni Muslim world’s most powerful armies (and because Rawalpindi is more likely than Ankara to play second fiddle to Riyadh), will become even more critical to Riyadh as the Sudairis doubt Washington’s intentions and resolve.  The Pakistani military — deeply allied with China, the largest importer of Saudi crude — has historically contributed forces to Arab Muslim states in times of need. It is an equal opportunity offender, having shot down Israeli fighter jets and brutally subdued Palestinian militant organizations.  Many of its retired officers have also served in the security services of Gulf Arab states, including Bahrain. Recently, the Fauji Foundation — a massive Pakistan Army welfare trust and business conglomerate — put out advertisements for hundreds of anti-riot instructor and security guard jobs with Bahrain’s internal security services.  Pakistanis have served in the Bahrain security forces for decades; many have been naturalized to boost the island nation’s Sunni population.

So the Pakistan Army is not a tangential player when it comes to Gulf security.  It can potentially serve as a force multiplier for the Saudis. Presumably, Riyadh is preparing contingencies for worst-case scenarios that might require the direct support of the Pakistan Army. Bandar’s meetings with the civilians – Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, as well as Zardari — are likely aimed at ensuring that they do not serve as a hindrance to such plans.

Interestingly, Bandar is not the kingdom’s major interlocutor with the Pakistanis.  The kingdom’s Pakistan portfolio is generally handled by the Saudi ambassador, foreign minister, and intelligence chief.  It is possible that in addition to his role as general secretary of the NSC, Bandar visited Pakistan due to his pragmatist and pro-US leanings, which might have helped in building confidence with PPP officials.  It also suggests a deficiency in the more regular channels of communication.

For Pakistan, siding with the conservative Sunni Arabic bloc risks alienating Iran, with which there remains the faint hope of a natural gas pipeline for the energy-starved South Asian state.  While an Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline seems unlikely in the present, it would be advantageous for Pakistan to have multiple gas import options available at least hypothetically so as to reduce its perceived dependency on a single source.  If it became clear that Pakistan’s sole option was the TAPI pipeline transiting through Afghanistan, then Kabul and ISAF could use this as leverage vis-a-vis Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Now only if the Saudis were a major exporter of natural gas.

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OPED — Only way to end the Afghanistan war: US peace deal with the Taliban

Here’s my latest, an oped in the Christian Science Monitor.  I will try to discuss the topic more expansively in a blog post here.  Stay tuned.  My apologies for the extended absence.  I’ve been busy.

“Nearly six months into the United States surge in Afghanistan and six months prior to the White House’s review of the Afghan war strategy, it’s clear our mission in Afghanistan is not only failing, but beyond repair.

Only a political solution can bring lasting peace to Afghanistan and extract the US from this messy conflict. And given Washington’s bleak military predicament, it must begin to give precedence to a political reconciliation process with the senior Taliban leadership now, rather than next year…”

Read the rest here.

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Zardari in the Crosshairs

My latest external publication is an article on ForeignPolicy.com that discusses the plight of President Asif Ali Zardari. An excerpt is at the end of this post.

I have been blogging less frequently in the past two months, but you can catch me regularly on the John Batchelor Show, Saturdays at 9:30PM EST (770AM-NY, WABCradio.com, and XM , XM Radio Channel 158).

You can also follow me on Twitter.

Here’s an excerpt of my FP article:

“Afghanistan’s election crisis has temporarily abated, but Pakistan could soon face a volatile political transition of its own. President Asif Ali Zardari is under ever-increasing pressure to resign. His influence and power are dwindling and will likely continue to diminish in the coming months. By this spring, the Zardari presidency could meet its end….”

Click here to read more

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The Bhutto-Zardari Kids Go Public

Bilawal and his younger siblings were publicly unveiled in Multan this July. Each gave a speech that was in English save for some greetings and slogans in Urdu. The speeches were very hollow. The kids spoke on working for the poor, but failed to articulate any pro-poor policies. Asifa spoke of her hope to be able to match her late mother’s achievements, but never mentioned what exactly her mother achieved. She looked a bit uncomfortable with the random jiyalas yelling slogans in her name. I don’t blame her. But it’s clear these kids, whose formative years were not spent in Pakistan, are really Dubaiwallas.

I found a few things interesting.

One, it appears that Bilawal is attempting to imitate his grandfather’s style of speech in English. He’s off to a good start, but the English language’s political utility is really limited in Pakistan today.

Two, after Bilawal raises his voice, the camera pans to Asif Zardari, who has an obvious smirk on his face. The same thing occurred during Bilawal’s infamous scream speech, in which he proved Zardari’s statement that “Bhuttoism begins where logic ends.”

Three, it appears that Jehangir Badr might be their manny (male nanny)/political tutor.

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Musharraf vs. Shahbaz: Who’s the Better Singer?

Pakistan now has two leading singing political figures, Pervez Musharraf and Shahbaz Sharif. I think they’re both good.

Below is Mush singing while president, in the same hall in which the infamous Abdullah Yousuf danced in a manner that made me want to poke my eyes out. Mush’s artistic debut was first aired on Dunya News. Later, the story was covered on a number of outlets, including BBC News and the pan-Arab al-Arabiyya.

Today, Shahbaz Sharif appeared on a children’s show and sang on two occassions (~16:35 and ~18:09). Unfortunately, the video isn’t available in an embeddable format, so here is the link.

On a related note, Nawaz Sharif, according to some rumors, used to sing to his girlfriend(s) on the phone.

And there are indications that Richard Holbrooke could get into the mix. He’ll be singing somethings from the Beach Boys or Frank Sinatra.

Bilawal is on call to bust out some of his favorites tunes from the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus.

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The Birth Pangs of Inherited Democracy

The head of Pakistan’s largest political party is on summer vacation from college.

Here’s a video excerpt. The best moment begins at 1 minute 10 seconds, when Bilawal Bhutto Zardari screams his head off.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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