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Posts Tagged ‘Coalition’

If you insist, I might hug. No really.

If you insist, I might hug. No really.

On Thursday, Pakistani PM Yousaf Raza Gilani announced to the nation that the army was being called into Swat, “to restore the honor and dignity of our homeland.” He asserted in his nationally televised address, “We will destroy those elements who have destroyed the peace of our people and our nation.” According to the Washington Post, Gilani’s speech “signaled the final collapse of a fragile peace accord between the government and Taliban forces in the Swat region.” The address, a day of fierce air bombardment against militant positions, also marked the beginning of a ground offensive similar to the one already underway in neighboring Dir and Buner districts, where the army claims to have killed more than 200 militants in the past two weeks, reported the Guardian. In the wake of the address, army sources announced that a curfew from 8pm to 6am had been imposed in Swat to prevent Taliban fighters from escaping as wave after wave of attack helicopters and artillery shells pounded suspected militant hideouts.

The announcement occurred as the trilateral talks between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States came to an end in Washington D.C. yesterday. President Zardari further echoed Gilani’s sentiment at a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar, where he stressed Pakistan’s commitment to defeating terrorism. When asked how long the operation in Pakistan would continue, Zardari responded ambiguously, “The operation will go on till the situation returns to normal.” He added, “There’s a realization in the world that it’s a regional problem, a worldwide problem. It is not an Afghan or a Tora Bora problem. It is not a problem secluded in the mountains of Pakhtoonkhwa…This realization brings strength to the fight.”

Although U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke said the main aim of the trilateral meetings were to develop “real cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan because without that cooperation success is not achievable,” the current offensive in Pakistan seemed to be the most pressing issue highlighted by officials and the media. In fact, noted the NY Times, “The timing of Mr. Gilani’s address was hardly an accident. He made it a day after Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, met with President Obama in Washington. American officials have expressed alarm that the Taliban militants are threatening the integrity of the Pakistani state. Mr. Zardari has asked Mr. Obama for more military and economic aid, and Mr. Obama has indicated that he intends to oblige him.”

“Oblige him” is a little easier said than done, though. Although Senator Kerry expressed “hope” that the U.S. Senate and House “would be able to overcome the differences between their bills for providing assistance to Pakistan,” BBC News reported that many lawmakers in Congress are wary of giving a “blank check” to Pakistan. BBC’s Mark Urban reported, “They [lawmakers] want ‘conditionality,’ linking the flow of dollars to Pakistani cooperation on everything from fighting the Taliban, to reining in the ISI, securing nuclear weapons and gaining access to AQ Khan.” Holbrooke, in response to these demands, said the administration “did not believe in conditionality but accepted that benchmarks are required to measure Pakistan’s performance.”

In my effort to understand this issue further, I spoke to Shuja Nawaz, the author of Crossed Swords and director of the Atlantic Council‘s South Asia Center. Although Pakistan does not want “upfront conditions,” he noted that it is understood among the Pakistanis that there have to be financial conditions. However, the indicators or benchmarks noted by Holbrooke must be an effort carried out by the Pakistanis. The government needs to “get their act together” like they did prior to the April Tokyo Conference, where international donors pledged more than $5 billion to help stabilize Pakistan. According to Shuja Nawaz, Pakistan’s finance minister Shaukat Tarin put together “an impressive framework” to show how the aid will be distributed and spent in Pakistan. A similar framework and effort must be made in order to garner much-needed U.S. aid and assistance.

In her testimony this week before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Christine Fair, a senior political scientist with RAND Corporation, also discussed this issue, advising:

It is essential that these processes and benchmarks be developed in concert with the Pakistani government. Both the United States and Pakistan must agree on how progress will be assessed and how remediation will be addressed. Pakistan must be a partner in achieving these objectives rather than an adversary being forced to acquiesce.

If Congress does approve the aid package for Pakistan, which will increase its civilian aid package to $1.5 billion annually, it is extremely important to know where that money is going so that aid can be more effective. There must be more accountability and responsibility, both on our part and the United States. Ultimately, we need more bang for our buck. In my conversation with Shuja Nawaz yesterday, he noted that USAID is appropriately named “because the aid seems to stay in the U.S.” He used U.S. aid to Afghanistan as an example, noting that only 10 cents of the dollar is actually spent on the Afghan people. Chris Fair, in her testimony, noted, “USAID’s business model relies heavily on layers of contractors to deliver services, something that likely results in much of the funding returning to the United States, suboptimal outcomes, and greater Pakistani and American disappointment with the quality and quantity of benefits delivered to Pakistani citizens.”

In my past interview with Samia Altaf, a public health physician who previously worked with USAID in Pakistan [and is penning a book on U.S. aid implementation], she noted, “It often comes down to program design and implementation strategies. Many of the donor supported programs are not designed with Pakistan’s context in mind. Also there is not much attention given to serious evaluations of mistakes and poor results. Nobody…asks why the program failed to deliver results.”

Although Pakistan drastically needs aid, not just for its military efforts but more importantly for education and development, we also need to learn how to help ourselves. According to Chris Fair, U.S. legislation, while providing military and economic assistance, must also enable Pakistan to “increase its ability to raise domestic revenue through tax reform and any commitment to collect taxes that are due.” Although this scenario is highly unlikely in the immediate future, in the long-term Pakistan’s capacity must be increased so that we are not as fiercely dependent on foreign aid.

For now, as the military offensive continues and the subsequent humanitarian crisis worsens, foreign assistance is increasingly needed. Let’s hope that this time, especially given the intensifying debate, we will actually see the benefits of this funding.

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Police arrest one of the gunmen of the Manawan Attack

Police arrest one of the gunmen of the Manawan Attack

On Tuesday, media outlets reported that Beitullah Mehsud, the head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the Manawan police academy in Punjab province, which killed at least 13 people, including at least eight recruits and instructors, and wounded more than 100. Mehsud reportedly told Reuters by telephone, “Yes, we have carried out this attack,” asserting that it was “in retaliation for the continued drone strikes by the U.S. in collaboration with Pakistan on our people.” According to BBC News, the TTP leader also claimed responsibility for two other recent deadly attacks – a suicide attack on a security convoy in Bannu on Monday and the attack on the Islamabad police station on March 25. He noted these attacks would continue “until the Pakistan government stops supporting the Americans.” Other media agencies reported the militant head also threatened to attack Washington, warning, “Very soon we will take revenge from America, not in Afghanistan but in Washington, which will amaze the entire world.”

Mehsud’s announcement seem to adhere to Interior Minister Rehman Malik‘s statements yesterday, when he said the perpetrators of the Manawan police academy attack had “rented an apartment in Lahore but came from Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas in the west.” According to GEO News, Malik noted the assailants had planned the attack in South Waziristan, and that one of the captured gunmen was an Afghan national. However, prior to Mehsud’s announcement today, the NY Times had reported, “It seemed just as likely that the attacks had been perpetrated by Punjabi militant groups, like Lashkar-e-Toiba, which was blamed for the attacks last year in Mumbai, India, or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian group that recruits in southern Punjab but in recent years moved to the tribal areas to train alongside Al Qaeda.” The LeT was also suspected in a hauntingly similar attack this month on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Monday’s attack on the police academy was the second major attack in Punjab in a month. Both attacks aimed to highlight the powerlessness of the government and its security forces, although yesterday’s incident was “resolved” by paramilitary troops, who struck back quickly, surrounding the police academy and fiercely attacking the militants. The government called the resolution of the eight-hour siege a “relative success.”

After following the news yesterday and today, what ultimately disturbed me was not that the TTP claimed responsibility for the attack, but that there were so many potential perpetrators. Beitullah Mehsud’s announcement reminded us of how many groups are operating in Pakistan’s periphery, and how easily they can coordinate with one another. Although they may be separate organizations, the line between them has become increasingly blurred. In February 2009, the Long War Journal noted that there have been “numerous reports of joint operations between the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Hizb-i-Islami, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami, and other terror groups.” And, although the Lashkar-e-Toiba [LeT] has historically had a more localized agenda [fighting in Kashmir], analysts after the Mumbai attacks noted the organization has evolved to become a greater, more overarching threat, one that has bought into the AQ vision. The Tehreek-e-Taliban meanwhile is a loose alliance of about 13 Islamist militant groups based near the Afghan border, with reported links to the Afghan Taliban. According to Reuters, “While some of the groups are fighting for implementation of a puritanical Taliban-like order, others are involved in criminal activities such as smuggling and kidnapping.” Mehsud is Pakistan’s most-wanted militant, and the U.S. has publicized a $5 million award for his arrest, [see CHUP's past post on him].

What is frightening is that these groups are no longer confined to Pakistan’s tribal areas; in fact, that has been the reality for some time now. Their operations are bleeding into our country, they are threatening our citizens, and they aim to destabilize our state further. The recent political turmoil in Pakistan, [which may have eased [temporarily] today with the restoration of Shahbaz Sharif as Chief Minister of Punjab] only further exacerbated the power vacuum in the nation – ultimately making us more vulnerable to such attacks. By targeting relatively safe cities like Lahore, these organizations aim to entrench the perception that nowhere in Pakistan is safe. By targeting our police forces [besides the Manawan attack, there was also the Islamabad police station bombing and last week's attack on a mosque near a tribal police checkpoint], they are not only highlighting the weaknesses in our security structure, but are intimidating members of these forces. The NY Times quoted one angry young recruit yesterday, who told the news agency, “I’m not joining the police…I love my life. No one wants to be here anymore. We’re taking off our uniforms and going home.”

Although it was an improvement that Pakistan’s elite forces were able to swoop in and prevail yesterday, [considering that during the Lahore attack, the assailants got away], the real victory will come when these incidents are not just quelled but actually prevented. Let’s hope that with one political crisis averted, that can now happen.

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From The News, op-ed contributor Babar Sattar wrote in “Pakistan on Trial”:

It is not the Pakistani identity of Ajmal Kasab that makes Pakistan guilty of having a hand in Mumbai. But it is the misguided inclination to hide unflattering truth born of false pride and misperceived patriotism that could make us complicit. The Indian media’s point-scoring will continue as pieces of the terror plot are found in Pakistan and our national ego will take a temporary beating. But we cannot allow our ego to become a sanctuary for felons who bring the rest of us a bad name.

Similarly, Shandana Khan Mohmand wrote in Dawn today:

If there is anything that the Mumbai terror attacks have made clear, it is that it’s time to think outside the box. The manner in which we in Pakistan have thought, spoken and acted so far has led us here. If we want to move away from this spot, the same conventional thought process and attitude is no longer going to work. A dramatic shift is now required in the way we perceive our region and conceive our identity.

In this week’s Friday Times editorial, “The Truth Will Out,” Najam Sethi further discussed the revelation that Ajmal Kasab is Pakistani and the subsequent sacking of Mahmoud Ali Durrani, [see previous post] noting, [the developments] “reflects rather badly on the state of affairs in Islamabad. Even when a good decision is made, as in this case, the government does not know how to extract maximum advantage from it.”

Finally, in today’s Nation, the editors asserted that Durrani’s dismissal was “yet another reminder that there is something seriously wrong with the PPP-led administration’s style of governance,” but noted [contrary to many other sources], “Mr. Durrani had no business making a statement replete with serious international implications without first consulting the PM. His statement came as a surprise to the latter and made the Foreign Ministry and Interior Ministry cut a sorry figure.”

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Mahmoud Ali Durrani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States and the current national security adviser, was fired after publicly acknowledging the surviving Mumbai attacker – Mohammed Ajmal Kasab – was Pakistani. According to a statement released by PM Yousaf Raza Gilani‘s office, Durrani was fired because “he gave media interviews on national security issues without consulting the prime minister.” The Associated Press reported, “The government’s acknowledgment that Kasab is Pakistani — something India has long alleged — followed weeks of its saying there was no proof and he is not in its national identification databases.” Yesterday, prior to Durrani’s statements, Pakistan’s foreign office also confirmed Kasab’s nationality as Pakistani,  [as did Information minister Sherry Rehman].

The firing of Durrani garnered significant media attention yesterday and today. Although Indian news outlets interpreted the dismissal “as a reaction to his revelation of the truth about the gunman’s nationality,” Durrani said today that authorities, “including the powerful security agencies, had already decided to confirm the gunman was Pakistani,” reported Dawn. According to the news agency, Durrani added that he had been fired because “Gilani had not been informed about the decision to confirm Kasab’s nationality and the prime minister had ‘felt the need to exert his authority.'” The security chief asserted, “The prime minister happened to be ignorant. He was in Lahore and he didn’t know about it. He was out of the loop.”

News agencies today framed the development as a sign of the “deep fissures” within Pakistan’s government. Dawn noted in its coverage, “Durrani’s dismissal was the latest incident since the Mumbai attacks to raise questions about who is in charge in Pakistan.” The AP cited security analyst Talat Masood, who noted that Durrani’s national security appointment was controversial from the start because some considered him too pro-American, “so the government may have been looking for an excuse to get rid of him.” Masood added, however, that the development “definitely reflects on the confusion that prevails in Pakistan in the functioning of the government and the indecisiveness over how to deal with India.”

Several political figures issued statements regarding yesterday’s incidents today. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the president of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, demanded that the government “resign immediately and hold new elections in the country,” reported GEO Television. In a statement, Hussain reportedly said the conflicting statements from federal ministers and government officials were “very disappointing” and called Durrani and the foreign office assertions [confirming that Kasab is Pakistani] part of the U.S. agenda.

Durrani, on the other hand, has said “he had been doing what was best for peace.” He told news agencies, “I have no bad conscience. I was doing what is best for Pakistan, I was doing what is best for peace between India and Pakistan. If it doesn’t suit some people, then so be it.”

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Media outlets report that Pakistani officials will meet with representatives from the International Monetary Fund in Dubai on Tuesday, “amid growing speculation that the country may formally ask for a balance of payments support program,” noted Reuters. According to the news agency, “The CNBC news channel reported on Sunday that the seven-month-old civilian government would ask the IMF for $10 billion, though officials were unavailable or declined to comment on the report.” Bloomberg reported today that the loan would essentially “prevent default after foreign-exchange reserves plunged 74 percent.

Bloomberg, in its coverage, also cited Pakistan’s new finance minister, Shaukat Tarin, [replacing Naveed Qamar] who said that Pakistan is also seeking support from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The news agency noted,

Reserves have fallen to about $4.3 billion in the past year, putting at risk the country’s ability to pay the $3 billion in debt- servicing costs due in the coming year. Credit-default swaps on Pakistan’s $2.7 billion of dollar- denominated bonds outstanding have more than tripled since August to 2,453.7 basis points, according to CMA Datavision.

Pakistani officials have so far not commented on whether Tuesday’s IMF meeting will actually include a request for aid. Although Dawn reported that Tarin said Saturday “that officals would meet IMF representatives in the coming week for a regular, usually annual, comprehensive discussion of Pakistani policies, known as the Article IV consultation process,” Bloomberg cited him stating in an interview yesterday, “If I don’t feel the comfort level with the multilateral agencies and our bilateral friends in three to four weeks, then I’ll have to write to the IMF… [A default is] out of the question.”

Ultimately, seeking an IMF bailout is a politically unpopular move. However, after Pakistan was “rebuffed” by China, [the NY Times reported that President Zardari returned from his trip without a financial commitment from Beijing], Saudi Arabia refusing to offer concessions on oil, and with the United States and other nations preoccupied with the financial crisis, an IMF-backed plan may be the only viable option. Why is this a last resort? According to the Times, accepting a bailout package would not only be humiliating for the new regime, but it would require Pakistan’s government “to cut spending and raise taxes, among other measures, which could hurt the poor.” Given that the country’s power and food crises have already impacted the entire population, particularly the lower classes, further cuts would be problematic. [Image from the AP]

The AFP framed U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher‘s visit to Pakistan in light of these “economic woes.” According to the news agency, Boucher and Zardari would discuss both the “war on terror” and the worsening economic issues in Pakistan today. According to the NY Times, “The Bush administration is concerned that Pakistan’s economic meltdown will provide an opportunity for Islamic militants to capitalize on rising poverty and frustration,” [also see CHUP's past piece, "Security Implications of Pakistan's  Bankruptcy Fears"]. Despite this concern, however, Boucher said “Pakistan will not receive aid in cash [from the U.S.] in the meeting of Friends of Pakistan.” According to GEO Television, Boucher added that the meeting “would deliberate on ways to provide aid to Pakistan through alternative modes.” [Image from GEO]

Other good background to check out from CHUP:

* Insight into the Problems Facing Pakistan’s Textile Industry – Abida Mukhtar

*Pakistan’s Food Crisis – Abida Mukhtar

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Selling the War on Terror

The most recent issue of the Friday Times** included an in-depth discussion of the October 8th in-camera parliamentary briefings, [see this past post for more background]. According to the news agency,

In a move seen as an attempt by the government to win over skeptics and dissenters within Parliament, parliamentarians were given an overview of the nature of terrorist threat facing Pakistan, and the steps taken by the government and the military in countering it…

The Friday Times ran a series of interviews conducted by Shaukat Piracha with various Pakistani members of Parliament (MPs) from different political parties, on their reactions and thoughts on the briefings. After sifting through their accounts, I thought it significant to highlight the key statements made by these political figures. Ahsan Iqbal, the central information secretary of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz [PPP's initial coalition partner, now sitting on the opposition bench due to "irreconcileable differences" over the judiciary issue], asserted that his party believes,

…the nation is looking towards [the] parliament at this critical juncture in history…We believe the time has come…for a comprehensive strategy which is not simply based on security policy. The crisis is multi-dimensional…We want a comprehensive strategy that also gives due consideration to the educational and employment needs of the people. By doing so, we can bring all into the mainstream against extremism and terrorism.

Khurshid Ahmad, a senator from the Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious political party that has previously been vocal in opposing the government’s policy of conducting military operations against militants in the FATA, echoed the need for a more comprehensive strategy, and noted that Pakistan needs to adopt different policies to address the country’s “separate faces of terrorism.” He criticized the fact that “war on terror” has become “the label for all kinds of terrorism,” from sectarian to ethnic to religious militancy. He noted, “We have to review our attitude in the war on terror. We have to examine whether it is really a war on terror, or an instrument to further pursue the United States’  global agenda. If we do not steer the country out of this crisis, we will continue to pay a high price….in terms of economic coast, huge losses in trade, etc.”

Piracha also interviewed Sardar Assef Ahmad Ali, a PPP MNA and former foreign minister of Pakistan, who, unlike Ahmad and Iqbal, came out of the session “far more knowledgeable about sensitive issues,” and feeling “completely in the picture.” Ahmad, in contrast, asserted that “he learnt nothing new” from the in-camera briefing, while Iqbal noted there “were a lot of…gaps everywhere,” with the military officials and the information minister not providing any new information. Ali, on the other hand, stated, “For the first time in the history of the country, whether one admits it or not, I came out of the briefing far more knowledgeable about these sensitive issues. We now feel completely in the picture. There is an existential threat to this country…[for the first time since] 1971.” The PPP MP also discussed whether the government should dialogue with militants, [see CHUP's previous post and take part in the poll], asserting, “If they [militants] renounce violence and lay down their arms, they are welcome to talk to us. Short of this, dialogue and making agreements has already proved counterpoductive.”

All in all, the interviewed MPs made some pretty interesting statements. However, on whether or not the sessions were beneficial, Ali – not surprisingly – wholeheartedly agreed. Seeing as how the PPP is the ruling party, such an assertion was not unexpected. Perhaps most telling though was the Jamaat-e-Islaami MP’s reaction, specifically when he emphasized, “We have to examine whether it is really a war on terror, or an instrument to further pursue the United States’ global agenda.” Although recent attacks have increasingly shifted the associated perception [with the fight against militancy] from the U.S.-led war on terror to Pakistan‘s war, the momentum can still swing in the other direction, particularly if U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani soil continue.

On Sunday, Dawn cited the latest Pew Global Attitudes poll that found that both the United States and Osama bin Laden have reached a new low in support among the Pakistani population. According to the report, “On balance, more Pakistanis express a negative than a positive view of the Taliban and Al Qaeda…One third of Pakistanis hold an unfavorable view of the Taliban (33 percent) and Al Qaeda (34 percent). Roughly a quarter hold a favorable view of both groups while many Pakistanis do not express an opinion about either.” Dawn added, “72 percent said they were concerned about religious extremism in Pakistan.” Interestingly, a recent Pew poll found 64 percent of Pakistanis believe the United States is the greatest threat facing the country, and 73 percent fear U.S. military action against Pakistan. [The slogan in the above AP photo says, "We hate bomb blasts."]

Ultimately, both are increasingly perceived in an unfavorable light. However, the United States, by virtue of being a foreign state conducting raids across Pakistan’s borders, is a more  polarizing actor. The Pakistani Taliban, [not foreign militants from Al Qaeda], can skew that us-versus-them line because they are indigenous to the region. Although most of us do not see them as one of “us,” [Yeh hum naheen] they are arguably less of an “other” than the United States. While Pakistanis are more united against these militants, that is still a shaky development, likely to be complicated by these continued U.S. attacks [on militant targets]. If such incursions keep occurring, there is the underlying danger that the pendulum could swing in the other direction. Essentially, the Pakistani government and the military must develop a unified, comprehensive, and long-term strategy to ensure that would not be the case.

**To view the Friday Times article, you must be a subscriber.

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Yesterday’s presidential election ended with the predicted result – PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari swept the polls, winning a two-thirds majority that made him the next president of Pakistan. So what now? Does the future of Pakistan fall magically into place? Are all our problems solved because, hurrah, we now have a new president? Not quite. Although U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice framed her comments in light of Pakistan’s democratic progress, telling reporters the election “was a positive sign for the civilian government of the U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism,” it is clear that Zardari has many challenges ahead. The AFP on Sunday reported the new president “will take charge of a country that has been [plagued] by Islamic militancy, with nearly 1,200 people killed in bombings and suicide attacks in the past year.” Just yesterday, a suicide bombing in Peshawar killed at least 35 people and injured dozens more. The Associated Press noted in its coverage,

Television footage showed a blast crater 3 feet deep, destroyed vehicles and pieces of debris scattered across a large area. Officials said many people were trapped under the rubble of two collapsed buildings in a nearby market. Civilians dug frantically with their hands in hopes of finding survivors.

In his Washington Post op-ed released last week, Zardari addressed this militant threat, noting, “I will work to defeat the domestic Taliban insurgency and to ensure that Pakistani territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on our neighbors or on NATO forces in Afghanistan.” This statement exemplifies Pakistan’s age-old balancing act, one that has gotten more difficult over time as anti-American sentiment has  increased and hardened. In a Daily Times opinion piece released today, Hasan-Askari Rizvi ultimately advised, “The president needs to work towards removing the gaps in the American and Pakistani approaches towards terrorism.” He also noted, “They [the government] need to provide clear political backup to the Pakistan Army, which is dealing directly with the Taliban and other militants. Such support is needed to boost the morale of the army and paramilitary personnel at the frontlines.” Moreover, since this is the first time a civilian president will chair the National Command Authority and the National Security Council, Zardari must be a sufficient liason between the military’s top brass and the government.

Aside from Pakistan’s security dilemma, Zardari is also facing political pressure to reverse Musharraf’s changes to the constitution, giving the president the right to dismiss the Parliament. Following the election results Saturday, Zardari asserted to reporters, “Parliament will be sovereign…This president shall be subservient to the Parliament.

However, the NY Times reported, “there was considerable skepticism among politicians and in the news media that Mr. Zardari would agree to a diminution of power.” Although PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, in a conciliatory gesture, reportedly telephoned the PPP co-chairman to congratulate him on his victory and pledge his support,  Ahsan Iqbal, a former minister and senior PML-N official, told the AFP, “Zardari’s first test is that as president he facilitates the transfer of Musharraf’s powers to parliament...We want the president to be apolitical – that has been the tradition and we hope this tradition is kept.”

Zardari and the government also must tackle the numerous economic issues facing Pakistan. According to Bloomberg,

International investors have fled a stock exchange that has nearly halved in value this year, the second-worst performance in Asia after China, as state subsidies for food and fuel and record military spending widened the budget deficit to a 10-year high.

The news agency cited Sakib Sherani, an Islamabad-based country economist for the Royal Bank of Scotland, who said, “The fiscal issue is the weakest link in the policy mix…[and] the depletion of foreign exchange reserves is fairly worrying.” He added that Zardari “won’t have the luxury of dealing with them one by one; he will have to deal with a lot of challenges simultaneously.” The news piece also cited David Chatterjee, who echoed, “Pakistan is seriously struggling…Politics will remain an overhang even after the presidential election – but more important is economics.”

However, perhaps one of Zardari’s largest challenges is Zardari himself. Although he swept the polls on Saturday, the PPP co-chairman is haunted by a murky past, a not-too-forgiving present, and the eternal label, “Mr. Ten Percent.” The Economist added, “He was imprisoned, but not convicted, by both Mr. Sharif and Mr. Musharraf, on charges including murder and corruption. He has been investigated for money-laundering and other crimes in Spain and Switzerland.” In fact, noted an editorial in Sunday’s Dawn,

There have been more controversial presidents in the past – indeed, the last occupant of the presidency, Gen Musharraf, was almost universally unpopular – but none has been as controversial as Mr. Zardari at the time of assuming office.

Given such controversy, President Asif Ali Zardari has to dispel the skepticism associated with his sordid past and prove to us all that he can be our country’s president. The last line of Dawn’s editorial sums up my sentiments exactly: “It was Mr Zardari’s right to become president; it is the people’s right to expect leadership from him now.” [Image from Reuters]

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