Manipal, India — It is small wonder that Pakistan's army chief, Parvez Ashfaq Kiyani, prefers to dial the number of the ever-obedient (to him) prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, rather than that of the newly elected president, Asif Ali Zardari, who has apparently undergone an epiphany since assuming what is formally the highest office in his country.
Zardari has changed from cue boy of the Inter Services Intelligence – and thus by extension the Pakistan army – to a leader with very different views on the correct path that his country ought to follow. Instead of the endless repetitions of the many "sacred" wars that the military has been touting as justification for taking away one-third of the country's budget – directly and through agencies connected with it – Zardari has given public expression to the view of most of Pakistan's non-Wahabbi majority, that it is time to put aside jihad and concentrate on economic growth.
The reason for such a transformation may lie in the clumsy and continuous efforts of the army brass to prevent the heir to the late Benazir Bhutto’s mantle from assuming any office in "civilian-controlled" Pakistan. Numerous hints, designed to prod Zardari into selecting yet another army pawn as the head of state, failed. So the generals looked toward the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to scupper the move, having given their numerous backers in Washington details about Zardari – details unsuitable for audiences below the age of consent.
None of this seemed to have affected his marriage, however. Interestingly, Benazir Bhutto chose as her consort a man very similar in temperament to her idol, her father Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto. Like his future son-in-law, Papa Bhutto was a playboy with a mercurial disposition as well as an exuberant and sometimes extra-rational belief in his own capabilities. Bhutto too spoke in populist language, even while being unstinted in his taste for the good life. And he too saw the army as the single obstacle to his power.
Unlike the pliant Gilani, who delights in spending time with the brass and their families, since his inauguration President Zardari has maintained a distance between himself and the army’s General Headquarters. Although at first he seemed to accept the role of camouflage agent that the Pakistan military has invariably asked the civilian leadership to perform, within a month, things changed.
The army has been pointing to the civilian leadership as the reason why it is "unable" to do more against the Taliban state taking shape in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, when in fact it has been its own terror-and-narcotics-driven linkages to the jihadis that has stopped them from stamping this band out. Should the Taliban be denied the financial and logistical support of GHQ, this ragtag band of adventurers would fold in six weeks.
Sadly, as yet, both the Pentagon and the Bush White House are in denial about the role of the Pakistan military in propping up the Taliban. Now they have been given a choice: to back Zardari in his coming duel against the generals, or to once again side with the men in khaki.
Most U.S. "South Asia experts" would favor Kiyani, who has been busy convincing them of the "severe constraints" being invisibly placed by the civilian government headed by Gilani, roadblocks that, according to Kiyani, are preventing more effective action against the Taliban. Kiyani is known to favor the self-defeating policy of "engaging" the Taliban in booty-sharing exercises rather than bringing to bear the array of U.S.-supplied weaponry against them.
Should U.S. policymakers throw their weight behind the army chief, within a few months a major scandal can be expected to surface that would fell Zardari, who would then be swiftly replaced with an army proxy. Of course, media everywhere can be expected to celebrate the fall of "Mr. 10 Percent," the way they have lionized former Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhury, an individual openly linked to the wealthiest politician in Pakistan, Mian Nawaz Sharif, who has made his peace with the army brass.
Zardari seems to have moved beyond showing the caution of Benazir, whose pliability to the army's diktat did not save her – or him. Rather, he is exhibiting the feistiness of her father Zulfiqar, in refusing to act as the civilian face behind the army's desire to keep NATO out of Pakistan's tribal areas, despite these being the base area for the war in Afghanistan. He has, unlike his party's prime minister, refused to back the generals in their covert war on India, preferring instead to go the route of conciliation.
Kiyani is now in a process of consolidation of power, and has handed out key posts only to those loyal to the "Kiyani strategy" of overt cooperation with NATO combined with covert subversion, driving out those officers from sensitive posts who were loyal to former army chief Pervez "Busharraf."
Simultaneously, he has launched a charm offensive in NATO capitals, talking in the tones of an ally while allowing the civilians to convey the message that NATO should rely on Pakistan the way the CIA so catastrophically did during the anti-USSR jihad in the 1980s.
As the Washington establishment all have a history of credulity vis-a-vis the character of the Pakistan military, the United States may yet decide to believe the men in uniform, stalwart chaps so different from "Mr. 10 Percent," forgetting once again that the Pakistan army is the only major provider of strength to the Taliban.
Unless the army's bluff is called, and it is forced into either accepting NATO intervention or itself stamping out the Taliban, the situation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan will worsen terminally. It is Zardari rather than Kiyani who may be the more reliable ally in the anti-terror war now raging in the Pashtun heartland.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)