Pakistan's New Leader and the U.S. Dilemma

Jayshree Bajoria
Council on Foreign Relations
Tuesday, September 9, 2008; 10:29 AM

Pakistan's new president (BBC), Asif Ali Zardari, assumes office at a time of great political turmoil, intense terrorist violence, economic weakness, and deteriorating relations with neighboring India and Afghanistan. The powers of his own office, inherited from former President Pervez Musharraf, will also be in question. Musharraf first assumed office through a 1999 military coup and gradually expanded the presidency's powers through constitutional amendments, including the ability to dissolve parliament. President Zardari, widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and leader of her Pakistan People's Party, has promised to restore the balance of powers (WashPost).

Zardari's foreign policy challenges are also daunting. His vow to continue his predecessor's counterterrorism partnership with the United States will face new hurdles after revelations that the United States staged ground force attacks (NYT) on Pakistani soil this month. While the White House declined to comment on the incident, both houses of Pakistan's parliament made a forceful statement (Dawn), including a demand that Pakistan's army prepare itself to "repel such attacks in the future with full force." Some in the Bush administration have expressed frustration with Pakistan's performance on counterterrorism, and this could signal a decision to set aside sensitivities and increase U.S. operations into Pakistan to pursue militants (LAT).

This could make it even more difficult for the Pakistani government to balance its domestic political concerns with demands placed on it by Washington. An opinion poll (PDF) conducted in May by Terror Free Tomorrow, a Washington-based nonproift group, found that 74 percent of Pakistanis opposed U.S. military action against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Anatol Lieven, a senior fellow of the Washington-based New America Foundation, writes that Zardari "is already hated by much of the population, in part because he is seen as too pro-American" (IHT). Zardari and his slain wife, Bhutto, were able to return to Pakistan in October 2007 after an amnesty deal signed with Musharraf acquitted them of all corruption charges. Many analysts believe the Bush administration helped to push this deal through, hoping that a powersharing deal between Bhutto and Musharraf could restore a democratic face to Pakistan's politics while keeping their long-term ally Musharraf in power.

Closer to home, Zardari must grapple with his own military. Pakistan expert Shuja Nawaz, writing in PostGlobal, notes "the army still remains a key player in Pakistan." The country's military and intelligence services have a long history of ties with, and sympathies for, the Taliban. Some analysts charge these ties render any Pakistani counterterrorist strategy ineffective. Journalist and author Dexter Filkins writes in the New York Times Magazine that the Pakistani army, once a predominantly secular institution, is increasingly being led by Islamist-minded officers. "The main challenge for the civilian government is to gradually assert their predominance over the military (PDF)," argues South Asia expert Frederick Grare. However, he warns, it must do so without humiliating the military and avoid direct confrontation.

Zardari's party also faces political pressures stemming from the recent breakup of its coalition with the party of Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister ousted by Musharraf's coup in 1999. All of this turmoil has Washington reconsidering its policy toward the country. "If there's a case to be made against democracy, few countries make it better than Pakistan," opines Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, a supporter of Bush administration policy in the region. Columnist Peter Preston calls it a doomed presidency (Guardian). Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center, says no matter how flawed, Pakistan's democratic institutions are better placed to tackle this chaos than any dictatorship. He expresses hope that the United States will show patience for the democratic process in Pakistan and not put its weight behind any one person or general, as it did with Musharraf. Robert Templer, the Asia Program director of the International Crisis Group, writes in the Financial Times that backing the Pakistani military or choosing sides among the political parties will undermine democracy and create greater instability. "Instead, the U.S. and others need to broaden their relationships with the country, expanding trade, opening markets and providing more education assistance," he argues.

© 2008