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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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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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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The Game Goes On

President Asif Ali Zardari gave his second address to parliament today.  Again, it was in English, so a majority of Pakistanis had no idea what he was saying.  Not a great idea since Zardari faces a credibility gap with most Pakistanis, many of whom see him as an American puppet.

Vis-a-vis the Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), Zardari made one concession and left many issues up for negotiation.  Zardari is weakened, but will use the remaining leverage he has over the PML-N to ensure that he has an advantage over his chief rival.

Zardari pledged today that the Peoples Party (PPP) will join a PML(N)-led government in Punjab.  It is positive that Zardari has faced reality, instead of fighting it and, as a result, destabilizing the entire system.  After three months of courtship, the Chaudhries and Zardari failed tie the knot.  This is a result of the internal divisions of the Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) and the growing strength of the PML-N in Punjab.

Zardari also added that governor’s rule over Punjab will be lifted, but did not specify the date. He vaguely reiterated a pledge to give up his power to dissolve parliament (known by the section of the constitution in which it’s addressed: Article 58(2)b.  The issue will now go into the hands of a parliamentary committee, where there is plenty of opportunity for dilly-dallying.  The committee will “propose amendments in the constitution in the light of Charter of Democracy.”

Keep in mind that the Charter of Democracy doesn’t just call for the end of Article 58(2)b.  It also calls for giving the prime minister the power to appoint military service chiefs.  This becomes key when Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani faces retirement at next year.  Will Zardari give up that authority to Prime Minister Gilani?  Not likely.

If Zardari consents to a neutered presidency, the rumor in Islamabad is that he will seek the office of prime minister.  Constitutionally, an ex-president cannot seek elected office till two years after he leaves the presidency.  Obviously, he cannot run for a National Assembly seat while serving as president.  So Zardari would need a constitutional amendment to play this trick.  He has a some leverage to negotiate an exchange with the Sharifs and other parties.

But once in the National Assembly, Zardari will be trapped.  The National Assembly will become the ultimate dueling center — especially if former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is declared eligible for elections and runs for an NA seat (e.g. NA-52).  Prime Minister Zardari would not have the same constitutional protection of President Zardari.  A president can only be impeached or forced to resign; a prime minister can be removed by a vote of no confidence or (at the moment) be dismissed when the assemblies are dissolved.  Zardari will not fare well if a situation in which he’s prime minister and Nawaz is opposition leader.  Imagine Zardari having to face question time.  The PPP co-chairman will have no place to hide and will be mauled by the so-called “Lion of Punjab.”

END NOTE: If there’s one issue I believe Zardari can deliver on, it’s Balochistan.  He has an opportunity to quell the insurgency and meaningfully address Baloch grievences.  There has been some progress, but — as the Solecki kidnapping demonstrates — Baloch youth are increasingly becoming radical (secularly).  But Zardari has the respect of many Baloch leaders as he is an ethnic Baloch and a civilian politician.  Furthermore, the PML-N seems like it will be a willing partner to address some core Baloch concerns such as provincial autonomy, the concurrent list, and army operations in the province.

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No Title. Photo Says it All.


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Sherry Rehman Resigns from the Cabinet

Federal Minister of Information Sherry Rehman has resigned from the cabinet.  The dramatic move comes after President Asif Ali Zardari decided to block the transmission of GEO News and make it difficult for Pakistanis to view other channels, such as Aaj Television.

Through resigning Rehman regains some of the legitimacy she has lost during her service under the increasingly autocratic Zardari-dominated government.  As information minister, Rehman had to put herself before the firing line and defend Zardari’s indefensible behavior with verbal gymnastics. The humiliation has been mounting.  In late February, Zahid Hussain reported in the Wall Street Journal that Zardari called a senior minister a “witch” in a recent meeting.  The consensus is that Rehman is the unnamed minister.

Prior to joining politics, Rehman was an accomplished journalist.  She was editor of the Herald, a respected Karachi-based monthly.

The announcement of Rehman’s resignation brought to end a volatile day in Pakistani politics.  In the afternoon, reports of a virtually finalized deal between the PPP and PML-N — ‘guaranteed’ by Washington and Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani — emerged.  Over the next few hours, denial came from all sides.  And then during the evening, GEO News’ broadcasts in much of the country were shut off at the order of President Zardari.

It is unclear where anyone stands in this complex political battle.  Are Zardari and Gilani playing a good cop/bad cop game?  Or is Zardari the lone man out?  Is this his last stand?  Is he trying to go out with guns blazing?  Will Bilawal be getting a new roommate?  Or is Kayani in on it too?  If not, will the danda strike within 24 hrs?

I am expecting even bigger news — possibly another, far far more significant resignation — within the next 24 hours.  But today’s events demonstrate the futility of predictions involving such volatile characters.  Over the past two weeks, the PPP and PML-N have been trying to make things harder for the other by releasing false leaks through anonymous quotes and planting stories in newspapers.  The game has been dirty.

So, fasten your seat belts, Pakistan.  You’re on the Zardari Express.  And I think it’s about to crash.

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Rally to Save the NRO

Politics makes seemingly strange bedfellows.  But alliances are always based on interests.  

Pervez Musharraf and Asif Zardari called Altaf Hussain to give him props on yesterday’s rally to protest the desecration of Benazir Bhutto’s posters (which was vigorously condemned by Nawaz Sharif several days earlier).

There are also reports that last week Musharraf called Zardari after meeting with some Sindhi politicians to boost support for the Mr. 100% (Zardari).  Musharraf reportedly asked Pir Pagaro to coax Yousuf Raza Gilani, a relative, not to cause Zardari trouble.  

It all makes sense: Zardari is certainly following in the footsteps of the Musharraf of 2007, which, I think was the Chinese year of the [dumb] ass.  Nawaz Sharif was right today when he said, “It appears as if the spirit of Musharraf has entered Zardari.”  This is not a partisan argument.  There are quite a few senior PPP figures who believe the same.

Interestingly, Ahmed Raza Kasuri is also on the same page as Musharraf and Zardari.  That would certainly make Zulfikar Ali Bhutto happy.

The real danger from Zardari going down is that the PPP is unlikely to rise again.  And that would be a major blow to Pakistan’s quest for political stability.  The PPP is flawed and internally undemocratic, but it is a national institution and a important pillar for domestic stability.

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Time to Use the Danda?

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Zardarization of Pakistan Continues

Asif Zardari’s quest to consolidate power in Pakistan proceeds without much political opposition.

Today, he replaced the retiring Chief of Navy Admiral Afzal Tahir with Vice Admiral (now Admiral) Noman Bashir, who superseded Chief of Staff Vice Admiral Asaf Humayun.

Admiral Bashir also happens to be the brother of the Zardari-appointed foreign secretary, Salman Bashir,  who replaced Riaz Muhammad Khan in quite a controversial fashion.

Well, no big deal since this is, after all, ‘Zardari’s navy.’  Note in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Zardari refers to the Intelligence Bureau as “my IB,” the Pakistan Air Force’s F-16s as “my F-16s,” and law enforcement as “my police.”  The ‘commission fee’ is now 100%, it seems.

Curious how Zardari managed to convert Bret Stephens from a harsh critic into a supporter of sorts in less than a month.  In September, Stephens called Zardari “a category 5 disaster.” Perhaps Zardari threatened a hug.

Note: Admiral Bashir writes in a 2000 research paper titled “Afghanistan and the ‘New Great Game’” that the Taliban “are inward rather than outward looking” and have “signalled readiness to engage constructively with the international community.”  He adds: “Keeping Afghanistan broken and destabilized suits those who do not want the Caspian/Central Asian oil and gas pipelines to take one of the shortest and economical outlets over Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea.”

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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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