How will history judge Benazir Bhutto’s widower’s presidency?
Will Asif Ali Zardari be remembered for securing the largest influx of U.S. military and economic assistance through the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, moving Pakistan closer to Iran and Afghanistan, progressing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, and presiding over constitutional corrections or will he be remembered for surrendering Swat to the Taliban, spending time at his chalet in France while his country suffered its worst ever floods, taking on Pakistan’s media and Supreme Court and failing, threatening party mavericks with physical harm and assaulting them with verbal abuse, cowardly distancing his government from Salmaan Taseer who was facing grave danger, failing to nab his wife’s assassins, promoting a culture of cronyism and corruption, and hanging on to power at any cost?
Zardari was nationally popular for a brief period in 2008, which now seems as unbelievable as the fact that his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, was once also very popular. Unpopular, ineloquent, and rightfully fearing for his life, Zardari ruled from a bunker for most of his intensely controversial presidency. His Pakistan Peoples Party was punished at the polls in May, but Zardari’s legacy, and future, as he himself has pointed out, cannot be written off. Those who think history will not be kind to Zardari should visit the recent words of his rival, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
At the small farewell lunch Sharif hosted for Zardari on Sept. 5 in Islamabad, the prime minister noted that Zardari has the distinction of being the first elected civilian president to complete his full term and be sent off by the incoming government. As guests tucked into their broccoli soup, Sharif got poetic in his remarks, recalling even the fragrance of the roses Zardari’s daughters had presented to Sharif in meetings that culminated in his party, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), and the PPP signing 2006’s live-and-let-live Charter of Democracy truce pact. The prime minister credited the president for his patience, for sticking to slain leader Benazir Bhutto’s policy of political reconciliation, for being a democrat, and for rehabilitating the Constitution. No one, said Sharif, can take this away from Zardari.
In his own remarks at the lunch, an uncharacteristically subdued Zardari swore loyalty to Sharif. “Step forward Nawaz Sharif [with your national policy] and you will find us supporting you from the opposition,” he said, adding that his party would “do politics” only when the next elections roll around, in five years. At the main table, Zardari told Sharif that it was time to end the “dogfights” on cable talk shows. Both men signed the menu cards for each other to commemorate the peace that appears to have been restored once again between them.
As head of the PPP, Zardari ruled with unusual political dexterity from the presidency despite the odds he faced while trying to change policy. His newfound instinct for survival was attributed by many to his several years in prison—on charges that could not be proved in court.
Sharif, too, went through the same sort of transformation. “I spent 14 pernicious months of my life in jail,” he told Newsweek in April. “I was rotting in that small cell, and there was a debate on the BBC about the biggest achievement of India since its independence … After an hour and a half of debate, the consensus was that the big achievement of India is that India has upheld the sanctity of the ballot box.”
Sharif and Zardari are disabused enough of the totemic exclusion of the rival in Pakistan’s primitive political culture to turn over a new leaf.
No longer shielded by constitutional immunity, could Zardari face old or new charges that lead him to jail again? His party and Sharif’s had objected, in the Charter of Democracy, to “the vilification campaign against … political leaders under a draconian law in the name of accountability in order to divide and eliminate the representative political parties.” Sharif’s graceful gestures of feting Zardari and keeping him alongside at Mamnoon Hussain’s swearing-in, on Sept. 9, promise a less hostile relationship. Sharif and Zardari are disabused enough of the totemic exclusion of the rival in Pakistan’s primitive political culture to turn over a new leaf.
Things didn’t go as well after the 2008 elections. PMLN’s mid-level leaders thought the party’s performance had been damaged by the unfamiliar sweetness spread by the Charter of Democracy. Still, the PPP and PMLN formed a short-lived coalition government in Islamabad but soon fell out over the restoration of judges sacked by then-president Musharraf. Zardari had reportedly sworn on the Quran to abide by his word to Sharif, but he squirmed out of this commitment by saying that the agreement with Sharif’s party, the Bhurban Declaration, was not the word of God. Zardari’s first serious mistake—refusing to reinstate the sacked judges—triggered a revival of the vendetta. Zardari alienated both the PMLN and the judges, who roared back to office and preeminence through Sharif’s street power, dooming an easier ride for the PPP.
Among many self-damaging populisms haunting Pakistan today is the lingering bile toward the National Reconciliation Ordinance, the U.S.-lobbied law Musharraf enacted to quash criminal cases against opposition leaders like former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Zardari’s assassinated wife, and pave the way for the restoration of democracy, which had been delegitimized by Bhutto’s and Sharif’s long exile.
The NRO should have been endorsed by Parliament to convert the time-limited ordinance into long-term law and compel the restored but smarting Supreme Court to leave Zardari alone. But Parliament balked and the ordinance lay in a bloodied stink on the floor of the house. The court then swooped in, declared the ordinance void from the get-go, and revived money-laundering charges against Zardari. What followed was a long drawn out battle between the Zardari-led government and the court, in which the former lost political prestige through reported corruption and the latter faced a growing chorus of complaints about its “revengeful activism.”
Zardari’s trail of glory is much besmirched by the exhaust left hanging in the air by the abysmal performance of two prime ministers appointed by him, Yousaf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervaiz Ashraf. The first could not avoid being fired by the Supreme Court for contempt, the second survived by the skin of his teeth after a groveling apology to the court. Zardari did not make Gilani’s job easy by taking on the Sharifs in the Punjab, even once briefly placing the province under governor’s rule, ignoring the media and judicial bias against him. Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab’s chief minister, let loose bilious repartee on Zardari, calling him and his comrades Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, among other names. In the National Assembly, PMLN’s Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan excoriated the clearly inefficient government on a daily basis, unobtrusively aligning himself with two other forces that despised the “secular” PPP: the media and the Taliban.
Zardari survived against all odds. He and his federal government completed their respective terms through “unprincipled” flexibility and serial capitulation. In this five-year period, there was a universal middle-class dislike of him in Pakistan’s most populous province, Sharif’s stronghold of the Punjab. Zardari was considered the wrong man for the party, and the wrong man for the presidency. It was said he had no principles and would cut deals instead of standing up for the country’s honor. It was feared that he would sell out to India, the U.S., and to his coalition partners the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (a terrorist organization, in most Punjabi minds) and the Awami National Party (which “never accepted Pakistan”).
Tragically, these prejudices were buttressed by the reality of corruption through the gouging of the state exchequer by unworthy officeholders deliberately appointed by the government. And the risible activism of Rehman Malik, Zardari’s hammy interior minister, quickly began to symbolize the PPP’s inimitably ineffectual brand of governance.
Whether you extrapolate from Machiavelli or Castiglione, a kind of unworthy wisdom has stood the test of time in statecraft: You should have principles to make your conduct predictable, but at the same time know that you are limiting your options. It works if you are strong because you can force others to conform; but if you are weak, then having no principles means you have limitless options for action and can adjust through flexibility to acts dictated by others. Today, as Pakistan slouches from one All Parties Conference to another under the diktat of the “principles” of populism, it is becoming internationally isolated, endangering its economy, and remains internally vulnerable in the face of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and its own nonstate actors.
Did Zardari know, early or late, that he was weak vis-à-vis the Army dictating foreign policy, which it saw as pegged to national security in a foreshortened way, affecting other sectors of life for which it took no responsibility? There are two domains where there are virtually no rules: politics and foreign policy. No real international law exists to compel states to behave predictably; despite laws like that against floor-crossing in Parliament to freeze political conduct, politicians always find enough space to be flexible in their loyalties. No state passes the test of completely predictable behavior. The dictum that reigns supreme today is that there are no permanent friends and enemies in international politics. Foreign policy must remain endlessly tactile (read: transactional) so that there are endless options available for the conduct of diplomacy. Zardari sought to secure foreign policy against damage, but ran up against the fixity of the Army’s geopolitical thinking.
If populism in the post-Zardari period is about to hamstring Pakistan’s options, what he set out to achieve after his swearing-in was a shift of the state paradigm. What he did looks like nemesis today: at his inauguration ceremony on Sept. 9, 2008, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was the guest of honor. Then, speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Zardari referred to the militants active in India-administered Kashmir as terrorists; he also stated that India did not pose a threat to Pakistan, which was quickly denounced by Hafiz Saeed of Jamat-ud-Dawah. In his book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad, Bruce Riedel observes: “In the summer of 2008, Zardari declared India was not Pakistan’s inevitable enemy and proposed, in a striking reversal of Islamabad’s strategy, that Pakistan should adopt a policy of ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons. At the same time, his administration took some small but important steps to open trade across the [Line of Control] in Kashmir … Many in Pakistan, particularly in the Army and the jihadist camp, were appalled at Zardari’s statements and decried these small but important confidence-building steps.”
Beware the Rejoicing Third Party
For most of Zardari’s term, Pakistan was internally united against the elected government in Islamabad and against the U.S. and the international community, which were worried about Afghanistan. The country was united in favor of the Army, gratefully, because of the latter’s resolve to oppose the world, the U.S., and India; and it eulogized the Supreme Court because it would somehow get rid of the PPP-led government before its time. This national consensus flew on the wings of the overwhelmingly uniform media opinion which refused to decide what to do about terrorism in Pakistan.
After the 2008 Mumbai attacks by terrorists allegedly from Pakistan, Zardari tried to be cooperative by proposing to send the chief of the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate to India to assist investigations. This backfired. Then came WikiLeaks. Zardari was quoted in leaked U.S. State Department cables as supporting U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan while talking to the Americans. In May 2011, after the Americans killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, and Zardari had welcomed the commando operation in a column for Washington Post, the feud with the Army exploded into the open. The situation denounced by the Charter of Democracy—an elected government clashing with the Army while the opposition aligns itself against the incumbent as the “rejoicing third party”—was re-gelling.
The lowest point for Zardari, and likely not Pakistan’s finest hour, was 2011’s Memogate. This scandal erupted after U.S. businessman Mansoor Ijaz made startling allegations, first in the Financial Times, claiming he was operating at the behest of Zardari as relayed to him by Islamabad’s then ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, imploring the Pentagon to castrate the Pakistan Army following the Abbottabad embarrassment. The media and the Army cried treason, the ISI contacted Ijaz for evidence; and Sharif took the matter to the Supreme Court—knowing full well that he was playing the part of the “rejoicing third party” condemned in the Charter of Democracy—charging Zardari’s government of acting against Pakistan’s interests. Haqqani was fired and eventually and unreasonably declared a traitor by a judicial panel.
The suspenseful unfolding of Memogate actually broke Zardari, who had endured prison with nerves of steel. He was hospitalized in Dubai as opposition politicians and talking heads dilated upon his actual and alleged ailments ranging from dyslexia to dementia. Zardari’s young son, Bilawal, was given an office at the presidency and rolled out before the cameras somberly meeting with coalition partners to give an all’s-well appearance. But all was far from well. At the time, even Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and the Punjab governor, Latif Khosa, were privately declaring that the end of the government from a military takeover of sorts was nigh. Nursed back to health, Zardari returned to the helm a far more chastened man.
As Prime Minister Sharif has generously noted, Zardari’s singular achievement in the constitutional history of the country is restoring the original content of the 1973 Constitution—which had been disfigured by Punjab-supported military dictators—through 2010’s devolutionary 18th Amendment. Greater powers were restored to the provinces and the president’s power to dismiss elected governments was removed. But for the unanimity he needed for constitutional correction, compromises had to be made. So some of the so-called “Islamic” provisions of the Constitution were retained and these will continue to hamper the culture of honesty and tolerance in Pakistan.
Was Zardari a “cunning Sindhi” who got Parliament to pass devolutionary laws to revenge his province of Sindh, where his party still rules, against the mighty Punjab? Zardari dented the Punjab’s resistance to change in the status quo by renaming the North West Frontier Province as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The first right to use new discoveries of natural resources now rests with the provinces, something that will benefit gas-rich Sindh at energy-poor Punjab’s expense. The 18th Amendment also reconstituted the Council of Common Interests, with the prime minister as its chairperson, mandated to convene at least once every 90 days. Outside the legislature, he created the administrative entity of Gilgit-Baltistan in response to the demand of the population of the Northern Areas for self-rule.
The 18th Amendment also sought to make the induction of judges in the higher judiciary a bipartisan affair. Athar Minallah, one of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s strongest supporters, hailed the new process for judicial appointments as an “an immaculate method.” But the Supreme Court decried the new law and forced Parliament into the 19th Amendment, which can only be viewed as masochistic given the court’s interventionist overdrive against Zardari.
When recently asked what he would like to be remembered for, Zardari put the Benazir Income Support Program on top of the list. Political vitriol and bad luck—from Pakistan’s worst ever floods in 2010 and 2011—had ambushed the program. But after initial false starts, BISP was reformed in order to win the approval of the World Bank and now provides unconditional cash assistance to 5.5 million families, covering nearly 40 percent of the Pakistani population surviving below the poverty line. The Sharif government has decided to continue the handout program, which its finance minister says he helped conceive, without changing its name.
Zardari’s trail of glory is much besmirched by the exhaust left hanging in the air by the abysmal work of the two prime ministers appointed by him.
BISP helped the PPP post electoral gains in Sindh. The party did not do well otherwise in the May polls because of bad governance and because the Taliban were clearly targeting its leaders during the election campaign. Zardari has left Islamabad to lick his wounds and nurture his party in Sindh. It is moot whether he will ever make a comeback as a ruling leader of the country. Sharif is in the saddle now and is trying to cope with the residual state no longer responding to normal governance. Compounding the gradual collapse is the misdiagnosis of what has really happened to Pakistan after years of involvement in the region’s proxy wars. The latest verdict expressed through an all-parties conference presided over by Sharif says that the U.S. is to blame for Pakistan’s misfortunes, and what is needed for “normalization” is peace with the Taliban.
What the Taliban think about Pakistan was graphically portrayed by Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in his 2009 essay The Morning and the Lamp: A Treatise Regarding the Claim that the Pakistani Constitution Is Islamic. This essay attacks Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan and its non-Islamic character. Bin Laden had also weighed in on Pakistan under Zardari’s rule. “In a June 2009 audio message, bin Laden accused Zardari of being no better than or different from Musharraf, and of being rewarded with more than his usual 10 percent for helping America, a clever reference to Zardari’s nickname for corruption, Mr. Ten Percent,” writes author Riedel. One of Al Qaeda’s common themes had been that Zardari, Gilani, and Kayani must be killed, and that the Army must revolt and set up a proper jihadist state. Al-Zawahiri’s treatise was distributed in Lahore by the city’s madrassahs, and some elements in the Army tried to do what he had prescribed: there were at least three attempts on Kayani’s life.
Pakistan is still on the brink of becoming a failed state as a consequence of the decades-old practice of using proxy warriors in the region. Because of the weakening of the writ of the state, neither governance nor the economy can function normally. After the decline of the state, there are only two strong entities left in Pakistan: the Taliban and the Army.
Zardari tried to get out of the security trap of the irredentist state through change of policy and failed; thereafter, he sought survival in office by cleaving close to the military’s worldview without winning the hearts and minds of the Army. Sharif faces the same kind of dilemma: he wants to shift the security paradigm to save the state, but is doing the opposite: seeking peace, not with India, but with the Taliban.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari thinks his father’s legacy “will be written in golden words” and fumblingly compared his presidency to that of accidental U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson for Huffington Post. But it is Mansoor Ijaz, the man who nearly got Zardari hanged in Memogate, who has the last word about the Pakistan which Zardari, and now Sharif, must really want. In an article in October 2011, Ijaz wrote: “Pakistan’s military men may not allow civilian supremacy just yet, but a serious transition seems to be underway to at least make civilian institutions strong enough to coexist on an even footing with the Army in the intermediate term. One day, those civilian institutions may indeed be strong enough to protect Pakistan’s truest national interests: not Kashmir, Afghanistan, and nuclear bombs, but the availability of education, the expansion of trade ties, and the provision of energy to a frustrated nation eager to find prosperity.”
With Fasih Ahmed. From our Sept. 27, 2013, issue.