PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari. — Photo by AP (Thumbnail illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com)

KARACHI: A week before the 2008 elections, former PPP Co-Chairperson Asif Zardari was asking General Pervez Musharraf's National Security Adviser Tariq Aziz for "advice" on "who should be prime minister if the PPP were asked to form the government." These and other fresh insights are provided from previously unpublished US diplomatic cables about what the American ambassador once termed the "increasingly ugly" tussle within the ruling party for the prime ministerial slot immediately before and after the 2008 elections.

The query from Zardari for Aziz is documented in a cable dated Feb 16, 2008 from then US Ambassador Anne Patterson who was told by Aziz a day earlier that he had met with Zardari twice in the past four days. At that time the former NSA, along with ISI Director Gen Nadeem Taj were trying to dissuade Zardari from seeking the PM slot for himself and to support PPP Senior Vice President Makhdoom Amin Fahim.

According to an earlier cable dated Feb 7, 2008, Aziz had told Patterson on February 6 that Musharraf had "responded with a firm rejection" of the trial balloon floated to Aziz in Dubai by Rehman Malik about Zardari as PM. "Aziz said it would reflect badly on Musharraf to have cut a deal to bring Benazir Bhutto back and then end up with Zardari as Prime Minister," wrote Patterson. "They could support Zardari as being behind-the-scenes party leader; in fact, Aziz said they preferred this scenario as it was easier to cut deals with Zardari than it would have been with Benazir."

Aziz and Taj were obviously successful in convincing Zardari not to attempt becoming PM himself. However, as Zardari dithered on naming the PPP's candidate for premier, the contenders for the slot multiplied. The US embassy dutifully sent back to Washington their assessments and profiles of the possible candidates, including at one point PML-N's Javed Hashmi and ANP's Asfandyar Wali, whose names Zardari floated in a one-on-one meeting with Patterson on Feb 20 (detailed in a cable of the same date) in a seeming attempt to prevent (what he termed) "government forces" from splitting the PPP.

The Americans were particularly well-placed to provide running commentary on the leadership tussle, since Patterson pointed out that "all of [her] PPP contacts are lining up behind various contenders and seeking our support for their choices."

Of the serious initial contenders from within the PPP — Fahim, Yousuf Raza Gilani, Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Aftab Shaban Mirani (Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar's name was added later to the short-list) — Patterson noted in the Feb 7 cable that "Frankly, none of these PM contenders strike us as being the strong leader that Pakistan needs."

Fahim was considered "likeable but weak" and "unprepared for being prime minister" in the American assessment, Gilani had "a history of corruption charges", Qureshi was "very ambitious", "self-promoting" and "too independent for Zardari's taste", Mirani "at age 70" was "pliant", and Mukhtar was "a dependable crony."

Despite Musharraf's aides pushing Fahim's name — or perhaps because of it — Zardari seemed most disinclined to approve him as the party's nominee even as he allowed the speculation to continue. In private conversations, he was in fact downright scathing. In the one-on-one meeting with Patterson, according to the cable, "Zardari noted 'Fahim has never done a day's work in his life' and that 'he had been in Dubai five times since Benazir's death for rest and recreation.' Benazir was fond of him and he was loyal, Zardari recounted, but Fahim was incompetent."

After Zardari finally told Fahim that he was no longer a contender on March 6, Fahim sought a one-on-one meeting with Patterson himself, ostensibly to "inform" her of the news. In the meeting on March 7, reported in a cable sent the same day, "Fahim indicated he considered Zardari a bit of an upstart and an outsider" and told the Ambassador "that he would resign from the party and go off 'on my own.'"

In a meeting with Patterson on March 10 (detailed in a cable dated the same day), Zardari laughed off the prospect of Fahim splitting the party. "Zardari said Fahim would only take two deputies with him if he split from the party," she recounted of the meeting. "Now, Zardari said, he did not trust Fahim." Zardari also "noted Aitzaz Ahsan was campaigning for President now" and "said he would not welcome Aitzaz back into the PPP fold."

Zardari also intimated to Patterson that "he needed someone from the Punjab as PM, since that populous province was the backbone of the party's future." However, Zardari noted, "he had floated Ahmed Mukhtar's name as a possible candidate…but Mukhtar had not done well in the subsequent glare of international publicity." This left only the rival spiritual leaders from Multan as the possible choices.

Even though the political brawling between the PPP contenders continued for almost another two weeks, Zardari had already told Patterson on March 10 that Gilani was his choice.

Cables referenced: WikiLeaks # 139894, 140318, 143716

Related cables (profiles): Makhdoom Amin Fahim: 141548; Yousuf Raza Gilani: 144160; Shah Mahmood Qureshi: 143433; Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar: 143716

All cables are available on Dawn.com.