WILL Asif Zardari's presidency be better or worse than Musharraf's? Will it lead to the fall of the PML-N government in Punjab and a full-scale confrontation with Nawaz Sharif? Will it be a replay of the ineptitude and corruption that characterised the civilian governments of the 1990s?
Will Zardari be able to provide the kind of leadership that is required to face the violent insurgency in the NWFP and Balochistan and a precarious economic situation? Will he be able to work with the establishment? The list of questions is long. He would probably restore the judges, and that may turn out to be a non-issue in the much larger scheme of things, if he gets elected as the president of Pakistan on Sept 6.
Is it a big 'if'? Yes if you read reports that discuss the growing murmurs among the army officers and the comments of 'senior' members of the establishment. But it seems highly improbable that an establishment that is so heavily dependent on the United States for both its military and financial needs would support Nawaz Sharif whose past is tainted by a record of collaboration with rightwing extremists and accusations that he received $10m from Osama bin Laden in exchange for the pledge that he would turn Pakistan into a Sharia state and become its amir-ul-momineen.
Assuming that Zardari wins the presidential elections, his biggest challenge may not be the 'war on terror', or the economic crisis, or for that matter Nawaz Sharif. It could be himself unless he can overcome his shortcomings. There is little doubt that there were many accusations of corruption against him. The argument that the charges were never proved does not carry any weight in Pakistan's context. How many past rulers have been tried and convicted on corruption charges? None. But does it prove that they did nothing wrong and there was no corruption?
Sons of former generals openly boasted about having hundreds of millions of dollars but were never touched by the establishment. The truth is Zardari's court cases were kept alive by the establishment because it wanted to use Asif as a tool to pressure and blackmail Benazir Bhutto because she deeply cared about his life and because he was the father of her three young children.
But that was the past. Today, like it or not, he is the leader of the largest and the only truly national party of Pakistan but he has not done any favour to his reputation and credibili
ty by repeatedly reneging on his public commitments and pledges to restore the judges. He shrewdly used Nawaz Sharif because he needed him to get rid of Musharraf but he may ultimately have to pay a heavy price for his apparently wily tactics and over-confidence. Even Maulana Fazlur Rehman, that master of doublespeak and Byzantine politics, could not digest Zardari's somersaults.
However, concerns about Zardari should be kept in perspective. For those who believe that Musharraf and members of his establishment protected the security interests of Pakistan and acted responsibly should do their homework and learn from history. The following quote from the US State Department report of April 30, 2001, titled Patterns of Global Terrorism, highlights Pakistan's number one problem — the use of militancy as a policy tool
“Pakistan's military government, headed by Gen Pervez Musharraf, continued the previous Pakistani government support of the Kashmir insurgency, and Kashmiri militant groups continued to operate in Pakistan, raising funds and recruiting new cadre. Several of these groups were responsible for attacks against civilians in Indian-held Kashmir, and the largest of the groups, the Lashkar-i-Taiba, claimed responsibility for a suicide car-bomb attack against an Indian garrison in Srinagar in April.”
It also noted “The United States remains concerned about reports of continued Pakistani support for the Taliban's military operations in Afghanistan. Credible reporting indicates that Pakistan is providing the Taliban with materiel, fuel, funding, technical assistance, and military advisors. Pakistan has not prevented large numbers of Pakistani nationals from moving into Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban. Islamabad also failed to take effective steps to curb the activities of certain madressahs, or religious schools, that serve as recruiting grounds for terrorism.”
The bitter and most unpleasant truth is that the Pakistani establishment has been its biggest security risk due to its faulty judgment and adventurous policies. There are two reasons why Pakistan today is considered the epicentre of global terrorism and security threats; the Taliban and nuclear proliferation. Pakistan's nuclear programme, even its cold test in 1983, was tolerated by Washington but what really set the alarm bells ringing was the reckless idea of selling nuclear weapons and equipment to the countries that the US considered unfriendly.
The establishment conceived, formulated and pursued policies that have brought Pakistan to a stage where both issues threaten the security of Pakistan. Gen Aslam Beg reportedly told Benazir Bhutto that Pakistan could make hundreds of millions by selling nuclear technology to Iraq, Iran and Libya. Chaudhry Nisar told Sunday Times' journalist Adrian Levy that Gen Beg suggested that Pakistan could earn billions of dollars by selling atom bombs to Iran.
The issue, therefore, is not whether Mr Zardari's rule would be any more of a threat to the national security than a military ruler's was but whether he would demonstrate enough maturity to build the consensus that is vital to rein in the “reckless and irresponsible” establishment which has played havoc with grave national security issues for decades.
His initial success in consolidating his grip on the party and more recently his victory against Musharraf has given him a misplaced sense of over-confidence. He would be well advised to understand that the power was bequeathed to him by that larger than life figure, Benazir Bhutto, and Musharraf's exit had more to do with the policy of the US that never really trusted Musharraf in the first place and had become increasingly frustrated with his double-dealing particularly since Feb 2007.
Zardari started out with the right ideas and spirit but his performance has fallen short of his often lofty and grandiose pronouncements about changing the system and strong institutions. His government has been paralysed for months due to a highly personalised style of government that is full of rhetoric and short on delivery. It seems to have woefully inadequate intellectual and administrative capacity due primarily to Zardari's biggest weakness — his tendency to rely on old friends and place loyalty above competence. This together with his over-confidence could mean Zardari may turn out to be his own nemesis. For Pakistan's sake, I hope not.