Dec 25, 2009

An extra life for the president

Zafar Hilaly

Mr Zardari has proved a veritable political Houdini. From being written off politically he has emerged unassailable. He has played the Sindh Card and thrust Sindh into the lobe of his opponents on the point of a political lance. His message, actually a challenge, is clear. Put up with me or risk losing Pakistan.

He has dared the Supreme Court to remove him and in the process warned off the army and Nawaz Sharif. Neither, it seems, feels it politic to take him on, at least for now; of course, it helps that neither of the other two contenders for power get on. But even if they did the outcome would be no different. Pakistan craves political stability not uncertainty and turmoil, as any fool knows.

How, then, did Mr Zardari — an ethnic Baloch, a lacklustre speaker with as much charisma as a pregnant llama and who, but for the fact that he was Benazir Bhutto’s husband would not have stood out more than the proverbial pimple on the hindquarters of an elephant — prevail in Sindhi affections? Well, it seems that Sindh has had it up to its gills with the establishment. Incensed that Mr Zardari was being singled out as the target while others were being let off, Sindh defiantly claimed him as their own.

Mr Zardari would be prudent not to let his newfound popularity among Sindhis carry him away. His mores, no less than that of his rivals, appals them. Those with whom one spoke in Hyderabad had little regard for him; it is just that they dislike his rivals more. Interestingly, most said that if Mr Zardari were to be replaced by another Sindhi from within his party the hurt would be less.

Apart from forcing a great many of his critics to eat crow about his bleak future prospects, what else does Mr Zardari’s newfound stature convey?

To begin with, it shows that Pakistan’s febrile democracy is strengthening; respect for mandates is gaining traction; a dysfunctional government is being allowed time to become less so and that contrived or forced ousters of elected governments are not a remedy for what ails Pakistan.

At the same time it reveals how uncomfortable the populace is with the proposition that an individual should have blanket immunity for all wrongs committed by him merely because he is the top gun. They find it difficult to understand why allegations — nay, virtual proof — of theft are dismissed before, rather than after, due process. And many worry that Mr Zardari may not smart enough from the narrow escape that he seems to have had, and instead becomes wise in his own conceit, because that would be disastrous for him as much as Pakistan.

A stable government with a good working relationship with the opposition and the army should encourage investors to return; the economy pick up and the frenetic pace of corruption may ease (because it will never cease) if officeholders are assured that they will have more than one fleeting bite at the cherry. Even if that were to happen, a tall ask in this kleptocracy, the global recession and the security situation virtually ensures that the government, any government, would have to carry the can for the lack of any real economic progress and the consequent misery faced by the people. In the circumstances there is little purchase for Mr Zardari in the economic sphere. And the little that there is has been lost to IMF regulators. The fact is that the economy is on autopilot and the controls with the IMF, as the latest power increases make painfully obvious.

But where Mr Zardari does have room for manoeuvre and an opportunity to earn kudos is the manner in which he steers the country as the American surge gets underway in Afghanistan.

What Obama faces in Afghanistan is not a military defeat but a political debacle. The Americans can win every battle and still lose the war. All the Taliban need to do is to survive; or, if that becomes difficult in Afghanistan, to move to Pakistan; and, if Pakistan’s badlands are not secure enough, then to move, as they are doing, into our cities. Fetching them from our cities is impossible for the Americans as much as for our armed forces. Of course, if the Americans are crass enough to try, a revolt will ensue, which nothing the Americans can muster will enable them to cope with. Weeding out terrorists is a process that will occupy Pakistan for decades. Of course, it must be done, and it will be done, not for the sake of America but for our own sake.

Mr Zardari should make this clear to the Americans, notwithstanding the advice to the contrary that he may receive from our ambassador in Washington. Mindless support of American objectives and caving in to American demands for intensification/expansion of the war is not on. Mr Zardari should not mince his words. Pakistani-US cooperation is not a pact to sink or swim together.

For all his strategising, Obama seems to have ignored one simple proposition: namely, that Pakistan will not fall to the Taliban. This prospect that has driven Obama’s advisers into apoplectic fits when faced by Pakistani reluctance to do their bidding is unrealistic. So much so that insisting that Islamabad do more now savours of a pretext for an indefinite and enlarged US presence in Afghanistan.

It also flies in the face of the belief held by the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis that unless America withdraws from Afghanistan and lets the dust settle where it will, peace is impossible. It beggars public imagination that America is willing to spend $100 billion annually fighting and killing the Taliban and chasing a hundred or so Al Qaeda operatives up and down the Hindukush when less than half that amount devoted to helping Pakistan and whatever Afghan regime is in power would transform lives.

It must have occurred to Obama why no other country really buys what he is trying to sell to justify his continued occupation of Afghanistan. How can they, when the majority of his own public does not? NATO may appear to do so, but not really. The handful of troops individual members have offered along with orders not to engage in battle makes this embarrassingly obvious.

It is small wonder that accusations are afloat that Obama is trying to make up for his withdrawal from Iraq by escalating the war in Afghanistan. Even Democrats in Congress now fear that Obama’s raft is headed for the rocks. American overtures to the Taliban have only added to the gulf between policy and intention. They reveal Obama to be not someone known to live by what he believes is true but, rather, one who believes what he knows to be a lie. And all because he wants a second term in office.

Mr Zardari has an opportunity to lend his voice to the overwhelming majority of his own countrymen, and a majority of Americans calling for an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Mr Zardari should not squander the extra life that he has received from his flock in Sindh merely to importune Obama for more largesse. His countrymen will forgive Mr Zardari a dozen times a week and reconcile eagerly with his past if he summons up the courage to look Obama in the eye and speak his mind. This is his chance to emerge from his wife’s shadow and become his own man.

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