America gained an import new ally in the War on Terror yesterday, with the swearing in of Asif Ali Zardari as Pakistan’s new president. Appropriately, the ceremony took place before a portrait of another steadfast Pakistani supporter of the United States: Zardari’s late wife Benazir Bhutto, who led the Pakistan People’s Party until her assassination last year by Islamic terrorists.
Zardari’s ascendance heralds a welcome development. The previous president, Pervez Musharraf, took a lukewarm stance toward the growing Islamist threat in Pakistan. By contrast, Zardari has vowed to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces occupying the country’s frontier provinces.
Zardari has no illusions about the difficulty of the task. “We are in the eye of the storm,” he said yesterday. “I consider that an opportunity. I intend to take that and make it our strength.” Zardari’s predecessor, to be sure, made similar promises, but repeatedly failed to act. Why should the new president prove different?
One reason is that, for Zardari, the struggle against the Islamists is as much a personal battle as a struggle for security. Terrorists not only murdered his wife, but they also attempted to kill Yousef Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister last week. Moreover, Pakistani civilians are now under brutal attack from jihadists who launch daily bombs into cities from their outposts in Pakistan’s North West province and tribal areas. On election day last weekend, one truck bomb killed more than 30 people. The attack was interpreted as a message to Zardari. Thus, while Zardari is realistic -- “I think at the moment [the terrorists] definitely have the upper hand,” he soberly told the BBC – there is every reason to think that he will make good on his pledge to face down the jihadists.
Pakistanis certainly seem to think so. Zardari’s tough stance against Islamic extremism helped earn him the highest approval rating of the three candidates for the presidency, according to a Gallup poll – not surprising when one considers that Islamist terrorism is the Pakistani people’s greatest concern after their country’s crumbling economy. Facing a daily bombing barrage, Pakistanis welcome any attempt to stop the attacks and sympathize with a leader who knows firsthand what it’s like to lose a loved one to the killers.
Zardari’s willingness to confront Islamic terrorism has endeared him not only to America and her NATO allies but also to Pakistan’s immediate neighbors, including India and Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, had famously feuded with Musharraf, accusing the Pakistani of doing nothing to stop Pakistan-based attacks against his country. But Karzai seems much more impressed with Zardari. A White House spokeswoman confirmed Monday there was now “increased co-operation” between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
As president, Zardari will make a good civilian complement to General Ashfaq Kiyani, who became Pakistan’s military chief last November. Like Zardari, Kiyani also believes in waging all-out war against the jihadists and launched an impressive, initial offensive against them several weeks ago in Pakistan’s rugged, mountainous tribal areas, killing hundreds.
For all his virtues, some questions remain about Zardari. For instance, critics cite his well-known, but unproven, penchant for corruption, for which he served 11 years in prison and earned the nickname “Mister Ten Percent,” as a disqualification from office. Further fueling such suspicions, a Swiss bank recently unfroze $60 million from one of Zardari’s accounts, helping substantiate the belief he and his late wife, supposedly his equal in corruption, stole as much as $1.5 billion dollars when she was in power.
Troubling though it is, this history should be considered in context. Corruption is rampant in Pakistani politics, a feudal and tribal business in which large and important families and clans vie for power. What is regarded as corruption in the West is simply patronage politics as usual in Pakistan. The notion of civic mindedness is foreign, explaining why Pakistan is ranked 140 out of 180 countries on the global Corruption Perception Index.
Additionally, Pakistan is a difficult country to rule. With 160 million people, it is the second most populous Muslim country in the world after Indonesia. Besides the growing Islamist insurgency, an undeclared civil war exists between Sunnis and Shiites in some parts of the country as well as a militant independence movement in Baluchistan. Well-organized and large criminal syndicates also contribute to the country’s instability and corruption problem.
On top of this, Pakistan’s economy is failing so badly due to the political instability and violence that the International Monetary believes it will soon require outside assistance. All of these problems have helped earn Pakistan a top ten ranking among the world’s most dysfunctional states in one foreign policy publication.
Zardari, however, may be just the person to tackle these seemingly insurmountable difficulties. He apparently engineered Musharraf’s resignation and made the necessary deals and compromises to get elected president. Even his critics concede that he showed unusual political skill and toughness in rising to the president’s office in such a short period of time.
With his deal-making abilities, Zardari could conceivably end the parliamentary parties’ constant partisan quarrelling and get something accomplished. In the past in Pakistan, such governmental paralysis and economic mismanagement have always led to military takeovers. Zardari will hope that he can end this cycle.
Already he is making progress. By turning the Pakistani army’s weapons away from India and towards the internal Islamist danger, Zardari has put the jihadists on the defensive, at least for the time being. Zardari’s success as a president, however, will depend on his ability to build on these initial victories. One analyst calls this looming, military confrontation his “real test,” on which Zardari will “stand or fall.” One might say the same thing about his country.