TO ENTER the office where Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan, conducts his business, you head down a long corridor toward two wax statues of exceptionally tall soldiers, each in a long, white tunic with a glittering column of buttons. On closer inspection, these turn out to be actual humans who have been trained in the arts of immobility. The office they guard, though large, is not especially opulent or stupefying by the standards of such places. President Zardari met me just inside the doorway, then seated himself facing a widescreen TV displaying an image of fish swimming in a deep blue sea. His party spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, and his presidential spokesman, Farahnaz Ispahani, sat facing him, almost as rigid as the soldiers. Zardari is famous for straying off message and saying odd things or jumbling facts and figures. He is also famous for blaming his aides when things go wrong — and things have been going wrong quite a lot lately. Zardari’s aides didn’t want him to talk to me. Now they were tensely waiting for a mishap.
The president himself, natty in a navy suit, his black hair brilliantined to a sheen, was the very picture of ease. Zardari beamed when we talked about New York, where he often lived between 2004, when he was released from prison after eight years, and late 2007, when he returned to Pakistan not long after his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by terrorists. For all that painful recent history, Zardari is a suave and charming man with a sly grin, and he gives the impression of thoroughly enjoying what must be among the world’s least desirable jobs. Zardari had just been through the most dangerous weeks of his six months in office. He dissolved the government in Punjab, Pakistan’s dominant state, and called out the police to stop the country’s lawyers and leading opposition party from holding a “long march” to demand the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had been sacked, along with most of the high judiciary, by Zardari’s predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Zardari defused the situation only by allowing Chaudhry’s return to office and giving in to other demands that he had previously and repeatedly rejected.
Yet, despite this spectacular reversal, the president was not in a remotely penitent state of mind over his handling of the protests against him. “Whoever killed my wife was seeking the Balkanization of Pakistan,” he told me. “There is a view that I saved Pakistan then” — by calling for calm at a perilous moment — “and there is a view that by making this decision I saved Pakistan again.” There had been, he said, a very real threat of a terrorist attack on the marchers on their way to Islamabad. That is why his government invoked a statute dating back to the British raj in order to authorize the police to arrest protesters and prevent the march from forming. I pointed out that Benazir Bhutto faced a far more specific threat and was outraged when General Musharraf kept her from speaking on the pretext of protecting her. The president didn’t miss a beat. “And therefore,” he rejoined, “we moved to the other side”: that is, he reversed his order to the police, and permitted the protesters’ march, just before giving in to their demands altogether.
Zardari has a special talent for maneuvering himself out of the tight spots he gets himself into. But the Pakistani people have grown weary of his artful dodging. Zardari’s poll numbers are dreadful. More important, he has given little sustained attention to the country’s overwhelming problems — including, of course, the Islamist extremism that, for the Obama administration, has made Pakistan quite possibly the most important, and worrisome, country in the world. Zardari has bought himself more time, but for Pakistan itself, the clock is ticking louder and louder.
When I arrived in Islamabad on March 10, the long march was set to begin in two days and had come to feel like a storm gathering force at sea — one that might peter out before it hit land or turn into a Category 4 hurricane. In a country where democracy feels as flimsy as a wooden shack, the foreboding was very real. “Our condition is much more fragile than it was in the 1990s,” Samina Ahmed, the International Crisis Group’s longtime Pakistan analyst, told me. (The I.C.G. is a sponsor of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, where I am the policy director.) The Taliban and other extremists had, she estimated, placed half the country beyond the control of security forces. The government had recently ceded control over the Swat Valley, 100 miles from the nation’s capital, to the extremists.
Pakistan feels as if it’s falling apart. Last fall the country barely avoided bankruptcy. The tribal areas, which border on Afghanistan, remain a vast Taliban sanctuary and redoubt. The giant province of Baluchistan, though far more accessible, is racked by a Baluchi separatist rebellion, while American officials view Quetta, Baluchistan’s capital, as Taliban HQ. American policy has arguably made the situation even worse, for the Predator-drone attacks along the border, though effective, drive the Taliban eastward, deeper into Pakistan. And the strategy has been only reinforcing hostility to the United States among ordinary Pakistanis.
Pakistan has made itself the supreme conundrum of American foreign policy. During the campaign, Obama often said that the heart of the terrorist threat was not Iraq but Afghanistan and Pakistan, and once in office he had senior policy makers undertake an array of reviews designed to coordinate policy in the region. They seem to have narrowed the target area even further, to the Pakistani frontier. “For the American people,” Obama announced on March 27, “this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.” Some officials see Pakistan as a volcano that, should it blow, would send an inconceivable amount of poisonous ash raining down on the world around it. David Kilcullen, a key adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander, recently asserted that “within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state,” a calamity that, given the country’s size, strategic location and nuclear stockpile, would “dwarf” all other current crises.
And amid all that, Pakistan’s president appeared to be playing with fire. Zardari was setting his security forces on peaceful demonstrators, just as his authoritarian predecessor, General Musharraf, did — against members of Zardari’s own political party — several years earlier. The government crackdown, designed to prevent the marchers from reaching the capital, began on March 11. The police swept through the homes of opposition-party leaders, lawmakers, activists, “miscreants” and ordinary party workers. Many leading officials were already underground, but hundreds of arrests were made. By the 12th, the first day of the march, much of the country was glued to the television, where swarms of heavily armed policemen could be seen knocking down protesters and dragging them off to the paddy wagons. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the main opposition party, saw the protests as the “prelude to a revolution,” while Rehman Malik, a key Zardari adviser, accused Sharif of “sedition.”
The posturing and hyperbole would have been comical if the stakes weren’t so high. Although in Pakistan, it’s true, the stakes always feel high.
FOR THE LAST TWO YEARS, Pakistan has been living through a dangerous and thrilling era of popular agitation and spasmodic crackdown. In March 2007, General Musharraf made the colossal miscalculation of insisting that Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose activism on the bench had threatened the military’s invulnerability to legal prosecution, step down. In decades past, judges quietly acceded under such duress, and Musharraf may be excused for calculating that Chaudhry, an unassuming figure, would do likewise. Instead, the chief justice stood up to the president, who then fired him, creating a national hero of resistance. Tens of thousands of people lined the roads and cheered as Chaudhry barnstormed across the country — an astonishing sign of Pakistanis’ craving, after years of repression, for democracy and the liberal principles established in Pakistan’s Constitution.
That October, under intense domestic and American pressure, Mu sharraf agreed to permit Benazir Bhutto, who had been living in Dubai, to return. Bhutto and her chief rival, Nawaz Sharif, had been exiled from Pakistan since their respective terms as prime minister. But their political parties — Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) — continued to operate under Musharraf, and their partisans waited for the return of their leaders to revive the nation’s democratic politics.
TWO MONTHS AFTER HER ARRIVAL, Bhutto was killed in an attack in Rawalpindi. Her death was experienced as a national calamity — both a terrifying proof of the growing reach of terrorism inside Pakistan and a grave blow to the country’s democratic hopes. Three days later, the PPP — an arm of the Bhutto family since its founding by her father 40 years earlier — chose her widower, Zardari, and their 19-year-old son as co-chairmen, the elder acting in effect as regent for the younger. In elections seven weeks later, the PPP, buoyed by sympathy over Bhutto’s death and vowing to take up the cause of the deposed judges, won. It formed a coalition government that included regional allies and Sharif’s PML-N. Here, at last, was a chance for a new beginning.
In May 2006, Bhutto and Sharif met in London to sign a document known as the Charter of Democracy. The two vowed to rescind a raft of amendments that military rulers had added to the Constitution, including several that empowered the president at the expense of the prime minister, and to establish a merit-based system for picking judges (a practice neither Bhutto nor Sharif even remotely favored while in office). But Zardari seemed much less interested in these constitutional questions than Sharif, who made the restitution of judges a centerpiece of his campaign. (He compelled all of his party’s parliamentary candidates to swear an oath before him demanding that the judges be restored.)
In May 2008, less than three months after the government was formed, Sharif pulled his ministers from the cabinet. But he continued pressing Zardari to abide by the spirit of the Charter of Democracy. On Aug. 7, Zardari signed a document pledging that a “nonpartisan” figure would assume the presidency and that this person would restore the judges shortly after taking office. When it became clear, in late August, that Zardari himself would become president, an irate Sharif withdrew from the coalition altogether.
On Sept. 9, Zardari became president of Pakistan and proceeded to ignore his promise to restore the judges. I asked Zardari how he could have done so. He explained that since General Musharraf had agreed to resign rather than face impeachment proceedings, “everybody goes back to start fresh.” Apparently this was, in Zardari’s mind, a special kind of pact that ceased to be binding when one party concluded that the circumstances under which it had been accepted had changed. Zar dari kept nibbling away at this perplexing concept. The document he had signed was “an agreement by consent,” not “an agreement by law.” It was like a marriage. It was like a merger. I said that I wondered if Sharif would agree; he may well have thought that Zardari had, in fact, bound himself to act with dispatch. “Maybe that might be the interpretation assumed by him,” the president conceded.
Zardari did win a partial victory: he persuaded 57 of the remaining 63 High Court judges to take a new oath in order to be restored to office. But the other six, including Chaudhry, refused to do so, on the grounds that, as they had been unconstitutionally deprived of office, the oaths they swore earlier remained in force. Early this year, the lawyers began planning their march, which was to terminate with a sit-in in Islamabad. The government would be able to dismiss a sit-in among lawyers as a nuisance; only with the active involvement of the PML-N, with its vast rank and file and its control over the Punjab state apparatus, would the protest truly pose a threat to Zardari. In mid-February, the PML-N agreed to join the lawyers not only for the planned march but also for the sit-in, which held far greater potential for confrontation.
Ten days later, on Feb. 25, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar — whom Musharraf had elevated to replace Chaudhry, and whom Zardari had consistently supported (rumors abound of late-night conversations between them in the president’s house) — abruptly issued a decision on a case that had been pending for eight months, finding that Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, the chief minister of Punjab, could not hold elective office because they had previously been convicted of crimes. It was widely assumed that Zardari engineered this outcome to end PML-N control over Punjab. That very evening he gave substance to these suspicions by suspending Punjab’s elected government in favor of rule by the governor, a federal appointee. This combination of moves had the appearance of a coup. It caused outrage in the Punjab, in the ranks of the PML-N and throughout the country.
When I asked Zardari why he had imposed governor’s rule, he embarked on another adventure in logic. “No democratic party would like to do governor’s rule,” he said. “It’s in the Constitution; it’s part of necessity. The government advised me to put governor’s rule, and I took their advice, as I am bound by the Constitution to accept the advice from the government.” The official line is that, with the local government dissolved and no single party in the majority and thus able to form a new government, Islamabad had to step in. In fact, in such situations the Constitution requires the governor to ask the largest party to seek to form a majority — as the PML-N surely would have done — although the president does have the right to impose governor’s rule if he judges the province to be unstable.
Zardari is, as all acknowledge, a very shrewd operator, but he seems to have little feel for public opinion: by overturning the Punjab government, he had sown a whirlwind. One leader of the planned march pointed out to me that the government could have completely taken the breeze out of the lawyers’ sails by pushing the Supreme Court to decide in favor of the Sharifs rather than against them; such an act might well have made Chaudhry’s restoration seem unnecessary. But Zardari, who traffics heavily in metaphors of combat, seems to prefer either guile or trials of strength.
Zardari’s critics were divided over the wisdom of the planned march and sit-in. “Zardari is not the issue,” Samina Ahmed told me. “It’s the institutions and processes that matter a lot. If the government is to be replaced, it has to be replaced by the people, who vote for a new government.” No democratic government in the history of Pakistan has been replaced by an orderly transition through a regularly scheduled election; Ahmed said she believed that democracy would never truly take hold until such transitions became the norm.
But others said that Zardari was very much the problem — that he was himself the chief obstacle to democratic change. Nasim Zehra, a journalist who runs the current-affairs bureau of Dunya News, a new, private Urdu-language TV station, viewed Zardari as every bit as willing to manipulate the Constitution as Musharraf had been. The real problem, she said, “is the culture of the exercise of power.” The only way to change this culture was from the outside. In her view, a new “Pakistani narrative” arose with the lawyers movement of 2007 — the narrative of “movement politics” rather than party politics, a grass-roots movement of the street, buoyed by the growth of new media, which demands systemic change rather than yet another partisan shift.
THE QUESTION, AT BOTTOM, is not, Why is Pakistan such a mess? but, Why is Pakistan still such a mess? After all, in the 1960s, Ayub Khan, the country’s generalissimo-philosopher, was celebrated, along with Park Chung-hee of South Korea and Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan, as the very type of the market-oriented autocrat third-world nations were said to need if they were to pull themselves out of poverty. Pakistan was favorably contrasted with India: a socialist democracy with a carnivalesque political scene, an asphyxiating bureaucracy and a “Hindu rate of growth” apparently fixed at 3 percent of G.D.P. Of course, that was then. Only more recently has it become clear that India’s democracy allowed the country’s innumerable religious, ethnic, caste and language groups to find places for themselves through the ballot and to build an economy as freewheeling as its politics. Pakistan, meanwhile, has stagnated.
Histories of Pakistan often point to the original sin of its founding in 1947. The very word “Pakistan” was an artifice, coined mainly from the first letters of the provinces that Muslim leaders in India had dreamed of forging into a separate Muslim state. “India’s Muslims demanded Pakistan without really knowing the results of that demand,” wrote Husain Haqqani in “Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military.” (Haqqani is now Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States.) And when Pakistan’s hero-founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, died one year after independence, and his chief lieutenant, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated three years later, Pakistan’s leadership fell to bureaucrats and soldiers. Neither held democracy in high regard. This new establishment did have a clear idea of Pakistan’s identity: it was a refuge for South Asian Muslims from an India bent on subsuming the new country back into the “Hindu raj.” Pakistan understood itself, and organized itself, as a national-security state with strong cold-war ties to the United States. Ayub Khan put an end to civilian government with a military coup in 1958. Pakistan’s identity and ideology were to be dictated from the top down, without the bother of elections.
The army remained firmly in control of Pakistan’s destinies for 30 years, with an interval for the turbulent era of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who inherited power from an army discredited by its inept handling of the 1971 war with the breakaway province of East Pakistan (which then became Bangladesh). Several years earlier, Bhutto founded the PPP, whose slogan was simplicity itself — “Roti, Kapra aur Makan” — “Bread, Clothing and Shelter.” The mere act of speaking directly to the aspirations of ordinary citizens constituted a radical challenge to Pakistan’s model of “guided development.” The fact that this worldly, witty scion of an old, wealthy Sindhi landowning family was himself a charter member of Pakistan’s establishment made his challenge to the system all the more electrifying, and dangerous. The military, and indeed much of official Washington, viewed Bhutto as a dangerous rabble-rouser; he was overthrown in 1977.
Bhutto’s army chief of staff, Zia ul-Haq, not only deposed the prime minister but had him tried and executed two years later on a trumped-up charge. Zia crushed all opposition and introduced into the country’s public life, especially into the military, a quite new element of austere and evangelical piety. Previous rulers, themselves religiously moderate, found Islam convenient, in much the same way that they found India convenient. Zia, a true believer, empowered religious societies and political parties in a bid to foster a new national ideology. His tenure coincided with the C.I.A.’s war on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; Zia’s military and intelligence officials were the ones who controlled the Afghan mujahedeen, doled out their American funds and sometimes came to share their worldview.
By the time of Zia’s death in a plane crash in 1988, his harsh reign was coming unglued in the face of a democratic challenge led by Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir. A new era began in which all the forces born over the previous four decades contended for supremacy: the military sense of right and obligation to rule; populist and democratic politics; Islamic mobilization; and, increasingly, blatant, rampant corruption. Bhutto was twice elected prime minister, and she was twice removed by the country’s president, acting at the behest of the military, “for corruption and incompetence.” The chief source of corruption, according to many analysts, was her husband. Zardari was jailed on a series of charges — none of which he was ultimately convicted of — from 1990 until Bhutto returned to power in 1993.
Each time Bhutto fell, a new election was held, and she was replaced by Nawaz Sharif, a protégé of General Zia and a voice for the citizens of Punjab, as well as for those uncomfortable with the “liberalism” — or secularism — of the PPP. Like Benazir Bhutto, Sharif ruled with the sufferance of the military and the intelligence apparatus. And like her, he ultimately fell afoul of his overseers. The era of democratic rule came to a crashing end in 1999, when General Musharraf led yet another coup.
THE GENERALS HAD CREATED a self-fulfilling prophecy: by infantilizing Pakistan’s democracy, they proved that civilians were unfit to rule. Indeed, as Zardari sagely observed in our conversation: “If you look at your own history, American history, and then you see, How does democracy become the best formula of the world to govern? Democracy becomes the best formula of the world because it learns from its mistakes.” The generals had never given civilian rule the chance. Of course, that was precisely the precious opportunity that Zardari’s critics said he was so recklessly putting at risk.
As a young man in Karachi, Asif Ali Zardari had a distinctly raffish reputation. A contemporary of Zardari’s from those days told me that his family had warned him away from Zardari, who was said to run in a bad crowd. His father had been a middling landowner — a feudal, in Pakistani terms — who had urbanized and owned the Bambina Cinema, which showed American movies. As a kid, Zardari hung around the theater and got into scrapes. He went to London, where, according to his wife — in her autobiography, “Daughter of the East” — he attended the “London Centre of Economic and Political Studies.” Zardari now says he studied at something called the London School of Business Studies. Young Zardari seemed much more interested in spending money than in making it. He had a disco in his house — very much the rage in Karachi at the time — and he drank and chased women. He was an ardent polo player with his own squad, known as the Zardari Four. He was handsome, trim in his polo outfit, with a flourishing mustache.
Zardari pretends — but just barely — to be stumped by accounts of his former exploits. When I asked about the fabulous jewelry he bought and the great wine he drank once he came into real money, he waggled his eyebrows, Groucho-wise, in mute acknowledgment of past delights. “I will not comment on those things,” he said gravely, “because Islam forbids drinking.” What’s more, he added, with a show of indignation, “this description you give — who is fun-loving, who is easygoing, who is consumption of Scotching and wining and dining and dancing — why would that kind of man opt for a life that he knows for sure that he will have to go through a lot of trouble and tribulation?” Why, in short, would he marry Benazir Bhutto — besides the fact that she was the most dazzling woman in Pakistan, beautiful, rich and famous? Zardari says that he wooed Bhutto because “she was the ultimate hope for Pakistan.” O.K. He also said, rather mysteriously, “Benazir and myself are related.” This, if true, was news to even very knowledgeable observers. Whatever the case, Zardari pursued Bhutto tirelessly, while his stepmother worked on Bhutto’s female relatives, in the time-honored fashion. Bhutto writes that she found him gallant, gracious and charming. In December 1987, they married. One year later, she won a resounding electoral victory and became prime minister.
Over the course of the next seven years, while his wife was in and out of power, he appears to have spent his time making himself immensely wealthy. He bought a 355-acre estate south of London and an apartment in London, among other properties. Investigators once found an account at Citibank with more than $40 million in it. The revenue for all this is widely believed to have come from bribes; Zardari became known as “Mr. 10 Percent.” He came to be seen as well as something of a thug: among the notorious tales from that time that Pakistanis love repeating to one another was one from 1990, when Zardari supposedly strapped a bomb to a man’s leg and forced him to withdraw millions of rupees from his bank account. Saeed Minhas, the Islamabad editor of Daily Aajkal, first met Zardari at this time and was shocked to discover, upon being hugged by him, that Zardari had a pistol tucked into his salwar kameez.
Among the many court cases mounted against Zardari and his wife were one in Switzerland claiming that he had received illegal commissions in exchange for awarding contracts to two Swiss companies and another for supposedly taking bribes from a Dubai-based gold-bullion dealership. Pakistani investigative officials claimed that the Bhutto family and associates took in more than $1.5 billion through various questionable schemes during this period. Nevertheless, Zardari can rightly assert that he has never been convicted, though in large part because Musharraf passed an ordinance wiping out pending cases against senior officials (himself included).
Zardari was imprisoned once again after Bhutto’s second tenure ended in 1996, and he remained in jail until 2004. He was an “A Class” prisoner, enjoying fine meals delivered from the Bhutto mansion, but he also says he was tortured, including having his tongue ripped open. The injustice and the suffering he endured — and endured with excellent humor and composure — provided him with a moral currency, which he otherwise altogether lacked, in the culture of the PPP. Indeed, when I asked Farhatullah Babar, the party spokesman, why the PPP chose Zardari to lead it, he said, “One factor was this” — and pulled down from the wall a framed copy of a letter Bhutto wrote out by hand. Babar read aloud the crucial passage: “I would like my husband Asif Ali Zar dari to lead you in the interim period until you and he decide what is best. I say this because he is a man of courage and honor. He spent more than 11 1/2 years in prison without bending despite torture.” This document is dismissed as a transparent forgery by the many people who loathe Zardari. As with practically everything else about him, the truth is very difficult to determine.
Zardari does seem to have exhausted much of the deep well of loyalty from which Benazir Bhutto and her father drew. I met any number of people who told me that they had been party members practically since birth, that the Bhuttos had stayed at their parents’ homes — and that while they would never, ever abandon the party, they had given up on Zardari. Safdar Abbasi, who had worked with Benazir since 1983 and was with her when she died, said to me: “Mr. Zardari had the opportunity of continuing with the legacy of both the Bhuttos and going on with the populist line. Instead, he opted for power politics.”
The issue that comes up again and again is Zardari’s supplanting of competent figures in favor of a tight, and isolating, circle of loyalists, friends from prison days and family members. Rehmat Shah Afridi, the publisher of The Frontier Post, a former boon companion of Zardari and still, he says, a confidant, speaks much more fondly of Pakistan’s president than do many others. “He is a very good friend,” Afridi says. “He never thinks, You are a small man, or a poor man, and I am a big man.” But even Afridi says that Zardari’s fatal weakness is his habit of trusting his friends — or the wrong friends. He recalls visiting Zardari last spring and saying: “Please, Asif, who is on your left and right? If they did some good for you when you were in prison, give them some portfolio, but don’t put them in your kitchen cabinet.” Zardari, he says, “is surrounded by the most corrupt people, from Karachi and Khyber.” I asked Afridi why Zardari consorts with these characters. “Because,” he said, “they know how to butter him.”
Government-by-crony is scarcely unheard-of in Pakistan — or elsewhere. But the urgency of Pakistan’s problems make clubhouse rule seem like a dangerous anachronism. One morning I met with Ahmad Mukhtar, the minister of defense. I asked an aide why we were meeting in the office of Pakistan International Airlines. “Oh,” he said, “Mr. Mukhtar is also chairman of P.I.A.” — another government post. Mukhtar offered a series of extremely stilted explanations for his party’s behavior in the current political crisis as well as for the president’s accumulation of wealth — “Anyone who has land will become very rich in this country” — and spoke of military matters with surprising vagueness. I asked if he had a background in either the military or aviation. “No,” he said, “I’m a businessman. We’re into shoes.” His family had 400 shoe stores. More important, he was a PPP veteran and a Zardari loyalist who spent time with him in jail.
BY MARCH 12, THE FIRST DAY of the long march, Pakistanis were watching the narrative of “movement politics” unfold — live, on television — as policemen in riot gear lobbed tear-gas canisters at lawyers in black suits, ladies in high heels, PML-N workers and the more battle-hardened rank and file of the Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. By the following day, the “AA,” as the Pakistanis say — the army and the Americans, the twin bogeys of civilian government — had swung into action. The army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, had met several times with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and with Zardari. He was said to be urging compromise with the marchers, though the meetings themselves awakened fears from Pakistan’s not-very-distant past. Anne Patterson, the American ambassador, met with both Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy for the region, spoke with Zardari; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a 25-minute conversation with Zardari and spoke with Sharif as well.
For perhaps the first time in the history of Pakistan, these feared forces, the AA, were trying to protect democracy rather than curtail it — though you could argue that all this meddling only confirmed, and perpetuated, the country’s political immaturity. In any case, neither side was prepared to buckle under outside pressure: Zardari offered to reopen the Supreme Court case against the Sharifs, but not to restore the judges; Sharif refused to call off the march. The confrontation moved toward its climax.
It was very easy to forget, amid all the hullabaloo, exactly why it was that Pakistan, the world’s sixth most populous nation, with 170 million people, so desperately needs effective governance. It’s the threat of extremism, of course, that accounts for all those phone calls from high-ranking American officials. But the exigencies of daily life come first for most Pakistani citizens. I received a sobering account of economic failure from Shaukat Tarin, the minister of finance. A former Citibank executive with an old-fashioned banker’s girth, Tarin is one of the very few technocrats in a cabinet consisting largely of loyalists. It was Tarin who steered Pakistan away from the shoals of bankruptcy last fall by negotiating a $7.6 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Now he is trying to make long-term plans — which, he added, the president had given him a free hand to do. Tarin ticked off Pakistan’s dismal current indicators: the growth rate of agricultural production has dropped every decade, and the country is now importing wheat; real income growth has been concentrated among the urban middle class, while rural poverty has increased; manufacturing is in decline; the information- technology sector booming in India barely exists. Only remittances from Pakistanis working abroad have staved off disaster.
Everybody’s favorite front-line state, Pakistan has suffered the “foreign-aid curse” as other nations suffer “the resource curse.” As Tarin put it, “We have avoided the tough decisions, and we just keep hoping that something will happen, and we will get this infusion of foreign aid.” Tax-collection rates are dismal, and the country spends paltry sums on education and health. Little serious planning has been done on either agriculture or manufacturing. Infrastructure remains primitive. And the bureaucratic culture sedates the entrepreneurial spirit. “There’s no performance management,” Tarin said, “no merit, a lot of nepotism.”
I asked Tarin if he worried that Pakistan’s political melodrama would diffuse the intense focus the country’s problems require. He laughed uneasily. The country’s chaotic politics “could have wrecked the very democracy we were talking about,” he said. “You cannot achieve economic stability without political stability.” But when I asked Tarin if any of his cabinet colleagues shared his sense of urgency and of the need for systemic change, he maintained a prudent silence. “This is the long-term history of Pakistan,” he said. “This is not one government.”
Zardari maintains that while Pakistan imported grain last year — when he wasn’t in office — it had a bumper crop this year. He seemed to share Tarin’s view of the dangers of aid dependence. “The world philosophers,” he asserted, “have come to the conclusion that aid has never been one of the best ways of developing countries.” But then he scrambled his talking points and said that when he first spoke with Bush administration officials, he called for a “Marshall Plan” for Pakistan.
The civilian government does at least exercise control over the economy, but national security and defense remain the domain of the military. Early in his tenure, Zardari made several bold efforts to assert civilian authority over the military. He sought to transfer control over the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the feared military-intelligence service, from the army to the Ministry of the Interior; the military simply refused. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, carried out by Pakistanis apparently operating from a Pakistani base, Prime Minister Gilani said that Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the ISI, would go to India to coordinate the investigation; instead, a lower-level official was dispatched. After these episodes, Zardari backed off.
The relationship between the military and the civilian government is thoroughly opaque, and you can hear wildly different views about the ambitions of the military from Pakistani analysts. Rifaat Hussain, a military analyst at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, says flatly, “I can assure you that General Kayani has absolutely no political ambitions.” I heard the same view from retired military officials and diplomats. Others are not nearly so persuaded. Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group worries that American military officials are far too inclined to accept Kayani’s insistence that he wishes to return the military to the barracks. She points out that he previously served as director-general of the ISI, which is notorious for playing by its own rules — and elements of which, according to American officials cited in a recent New York Times account, continue to work with terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which appears to have planned the November attack in Mumbai. During the crisis of the long march, Ahmed said, the military “would have been given a pretext to intervene,” if only by forcing the antagonists to settle on terms of its own devising. No one I spoke with said he believed that the military wanted to seize power, but many argued that it seeks to expand its own space at the expense of civilian government.
There is, of course, a reciprocal relationship between weak civilian governance and military supremacy. Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a retired officer and a leading military analyst, pointed out that so long as party hacks serve in the most sensitive positions, the military will feel justified in preserving its position. Another example of weak governance, according to Masood, was Zardari’s statement in a speech that Pakistan would not be the first to use nuclear weapons against India — a break with Pakistani doctrine hailed by many as a significant breakthrough. Not Masood: “I would have been very happy if he had seriously said, ‘No first use.’ But the way he did it was irrelevant. It wasn’t part of a larger strategic rethinking. He didn’t discuss it with the military” — which controls nuclear policy. “He doesn’t even understand the vocabulary.”
Zardari actually seems less encumbered by the obsession with India, and less equivocal about the need to take on terrorists, than most of his predecessors, including his wife. Precisely because he is an outsider, he was not immersed in the culture of Pakistan’s security services. And yet the widespread perception that he has tacitly approved the Americans’ drone strikes, as well as occasional hot-pursuit violation of Pakistan’s border, has damaged him politically. And in any case, his failure to formulate a coherent security policy, much less to articulate it in public, has reduced his views almost to a curiosity. Masood, an avowed foe of military supremacy, is biting on the subject. “The only way to counter the rising force of extremism in Pakistan today is through the strengthening of civil society,” he told me. “Zardari is doing just the opposite.”
Underneath all of Pakistan’s problems is the failure to provide decent governance. Extremism flourishes in the absence of legitimate state authority. This is patent in the self-governing tribal areas along the Afghan border, but the most striking current example is the Swat Valley, once a honeymooners’ paradise and now a militant statelet within Pakistan’s formal jurisdiction. The army actually succeeded in pushing militants out of the area in 2006 and 2007. But the government of the North-West Frontier Province, which Musharraf had given as a sort of prize to his more moderate Islamist allies, made little attempt to field a police presence, or to provide the services, above all functioning courts, that residents of the area demanded. These are the same demands Pakistanis elsewhere have made; the difference was that in Swat the extremists offered themselves as an alternative.
The new provincial government elected in 2008 promised to negotiate with the extremists rather than fight them. And that is precisely what has happened. The forces of Sufi Muhammad, the militant leader, have laid down their arms in exchange for a pledge to create Shariah courts. But other militants have an agenda of their own, including closing down girls’ schools. Most analysts were appalled by the deal. “It was an act of capitulation,” says Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. “And there’s no assurance that this will be the final domino.” Zardari, to his credit, has so far refused to sign off on the deal. But there’s little he can do to affect the outcome.
Meanwhile, American policy is coming down the road like a monster truck. With the strategic reviews now complete, the Obama administration is planning an enormous increase in development aid to Pakistan, reaching $1.5 billion a year over five years, as well as an increase in military aid, to be directed to counterinsurgency warfare. The administration’s increasing receptivity to negotiating with some elements of the Taliban and fighting others puts it far more in line with Pakistani thinking than the Bush administration ever was. But as President Obama said on March 27, “after years of mixed results” from military aid to Pakistan, “we will not provide a blank check.” Obama emphasized that extremists “are a grave and urgent danger to the people of Pakistan.” Someone in Pakistan must make that case, and it can’t be the army chief of staff. As Ambassador Lodhi told me: “Pakistan needs strong leaders who can stand up and say, ‘Here is the extremist threat that Pakistan faces, and this is what we must do.’ We have a democratic government, but they haven’t used that status to go to the people and articulate a policy.”
SUNDAY, MARCH 15, turned out to be one of the most extraordinary, and exciting, days in the recent history of Pakistan. That morning, a spokesman for the PML-N reported that more than 3,000 party workers had been arrested. Hundreds of police officers surrounded the home of Nawaz Sharif, and officials announced that he would be detained there for the next 72 hours. The lawyers’ leader, Aitzaz Ahsan, was detained and then escaped. In Lahore, cadres of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party threw rocks at advancing officers; the officers flung the rocks back and fired hundreds of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets. The roads to Islamabad were sealed off with trucks, containers and steel barriers. The Zardari government appeared to have successfully squelched the long march, even if at real cost to its standing.
And then it hadn’t. Around 4:30 that afternoon, the Lahore police district coordinating officer announced his resignation from the force — live, on television. Other officers followed. Sharif left his home in a caravan of cars — and as the caravan inched forward, the police fell back and then melted away. The government continued to take a hard line, but plainly, something had happened. Around midnight, reports began to circulate that Prime Minister Gilani would speak. The cabinet was meeting; General Kayani was once again on the scene. Pakistanis, a late-night people in any case, waited hour by hour in front of the television. Finally, at 5 in the morning, Gilani delivered a brief address in which he announced that the government had agreed to reinstate Chief Justice Chaudhry the following Saturday, when Chief Justice Dogar was scheduled to retire from the bench. Sharif and the lawyers agreed to call off the long march.
THE NEXT DAY, EVERYONE was jubilant, save PPP officials. The whole nail-biting drama had provided a tremendous boon to Sharif, to the lawyers and to the judiciary, to General Kayani and perhaps to the prime minister — to everyone, in short, save Asif Ali Zardari. Sheik Mansour Ahmed, a PPP loyalist who earlier solemnly explained to me that the march was a ploy by Islamists to pressure President Zardari into easing up on the militants, now said Gilani was “not playing a positive role.” The official line, implausible though it sounded, was that Zar dari had orchestrated the whole affair. Waqar Khan, a recently minted Zardari insider now serving as minister of investments, told me: “I think the president has done a phenomenal job by returning the chief justice, and they’ve done it at the right time. They’ve accepted the wishes of the people.”
It’s not clear what in fact happened that afternoon. Najam Sethi, editor of The Daily Times and one of Pakistan’s leading political analysts, says he believes that General Kayani played the decisive role behind the scenes, and that the army thus not only “re-established its credibility in the eyes of the people” but also managed to “cut the president down to size.” That is not, of course, the way Zardari recounts the events of that day. He says that his government ordered the police to fall back out of concern that “aggressive parties” associated with the Sharif brothers might use a confrontation to commit acts of violence. In any case, he said, his law minister had advised him that he could not have two sitting chief justices and so would have to wait for Dogar’s retirement to restore Chaudhry. I asked him, frankly incredulous, if he was saying that he had always intended to reinstate Chaudhry but had held off saying so until that moment.
“No,” Zardari said. “I’m not saying that. I’m saying that different positions existed given by the law.” And he apparently had to wait for a clear ruling among his advisers.
But there’s no getting around the damage the president did to his own standing. He tried to strike a blow at Nawaz Sharif, his chief adversary, and it was Sharif who emerged the stronger. American officials, increasingly convinced both that Zardari is not the interlocutor they had hoped for and that his days in power may be numbered, have begun to pay more attention to Sharif, long considered dangerously close to Islamist forces. Leading PML-N officials say they have learned from past mistakes. They have learned, for example, to accept an independent media and an independent judiciary. It’s not clear if Sharif himself has profited from experience. In the course of a phone conversation last week, he passed up all opportunities for self-scrutiny and advocated a response to terrorism that combined dialogue with tribal elders and economic and social development; military force was apparently not part of the equation.
And what about President Zardari? I asked him if he had learned any lessons from the previous week. He pondered. “Every day,” he said, “man is growing and learning. What you were yesterday, you are probably not today, because today’s you is yesterday’s experience. One is always learning.” Indeed, one is.