Asif Ali Zardari — singled out by fate to become Benazir Bhutto’s husband and who, subsequently, did everything he could to prevent himself from being returned to obscurity — was sworn in as president of Pakistan on Sept. 9.
Oily-mouthed hangers-on, never in short supply in Pakistan, will orchestrate a few celebratory shows and the ready tongues of old cronies (some now appointed ambassadors to Western capitals) will speak of how democracy has been enhanced. Zardari’s close circle of friends, with whom he shared the spoils of power the last time around and who have remained loyal, refusing all inducements to turn state’s evidence in the corruption cases against him, will also be delighted.
There will be no expressions of joy on the streets to mark the transference of power from a moth-eaten general to a worm-eaten politician.
The affection felt in some quarters for the Bhutto family is non-transferable. If Benazir were still alive, Zardari would not have been given any official post. Many of his wife’s closest supporters in the Peoples Party (or the Bhutto Family Party as it is referred to by disaffected members) blamed his greed and godfatherish behavior for her fall from power on two previous occasions, which I always thought was slightly unfair. She knew. It was a joint enterprise. She was never one to regard politics alone as the consuming passion of her life and always envied the lifestyle and social behavior of the very rich. And he was shameless in his endeavors to achieve that status.
Today Zardari is the second-richest person in the country, with estates and bank accounts scattered on many continents, including a mansion in Surrey worth several million today. Many of Benazir’s inner circle, sidelined by the new boss, actively hate him. Benazir’s uncle, Mumtaz Bhutto (head of the clan) has sharply denounced him.
In the country at large his standing, always low, has sunk still further. The majority of Pakistan’s 190 million citizens may be poor, illiterate or semi-literate, but their instincts are usually sound. An opinion poll carried out by the New America Foundation some months ago revealed Zardari’s approval ratings at a low ebb — less than 14 percent. These figures confirm the view that he is the worst possible slice of Pakistan’s crumbly nationhood. The people had no say in his election. Parliamentary cabals determined the result. A small mystery remained. Why did the United States suddenly withdraw support from Gen. Pervez Musharraf? An answer was provided on Aug. 26 by Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti in the New York Times. Officials in the U.S. State Department, according to this report, was not in favor of an undignified and hasty departure, but unknown to them a hardcore neo-con faction led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Security Council, was busy advising Asif Zardari in secret and helping him plan the campaign to oust the General:
The New York Times reported that, “Mr. Khalilzad had spoken by telephone with Mr. Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, several times a week for the past month until he was confronted about the unauthorized contacts, a senior United States official said, ‘Can I ask what sort of “advice and help” you are providing?’… Assistant Secretary of State Richard] Boucher wrote in an angry e-mail message to Mr. Khalilzad. ‘What sort of channel is this? Governmental, private, personal?’ Copies of the message were sent to others at the highest levels of the State Department; the message was provided to the New York Times by an administration official who had received a copy.”Khalilzad is an inveterate factionalist and a master of intrigue. Having implanted Hamid Karzai in Kabul (with dire results, as many in Washington now admit), he had been livid with Musharraf for refusing to give 100 percent support to his Afghan protege. Khalilzad now saw an opportunity to punish Musharraf and simultaneously try and create a Pakistani equivalent of Karzai. Zardari fitted the bill. He is perfectly suited to being a total creature of Washington. The Swiss government helpfully decided to release millions of dollars from Zardari’s bank accounts that had, till now, been frozen due to pending corruption cases. Like his late wife, Zardari is now being laundered, just like the money he made when last in office as minister for investment. This weakness will make him a pliant President of Pakistan.The majority of the population is deeply hostile to the U.S./NATO presence in Afghanistan. Almost 80 percent favor a negotiated settlement and withdrawal of all foreign troops. In early September, a team of U.S. commandos entered Pakistan “in search of terrorists” and 20 innocents were killed. Zardari was being tested. But if he permits U.S. troops to enter the frontier province on “search-and-destroy” missions, his career will be short-lived and the military will return in some shape or form. The High Command cannot afford to ignore the growing anger within its junior ranks at being forced to kill their own people.
The president of Pakistan was designed in the 1972 constitution as an ornamental figure head. Military dictators subverted and altered the constitution to their advantage. Will Zardari revert to his late father-in-law’s constitution or preserve its existing powers? The country desperately needs a president capable of exercising some moral authority and serving as the conscience of the country. The banished Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry comes to mind, as do the figures of Imran Khan and I.A. Rehman (the chairman of the Human Rights Commission), but the governing elite and its self-serving backers in Washington have always been blind to the real needs of this country. They should be careful. The sparks flying across the Afghan border might ignite a fire that is difficult to control.
This article was excerpted from a longer version at counterpunch.org. Tariq Ali is an editor of New Left Review and his latest book, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, will be published on Sept. 15. For more, visit tariqali.org.