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State Department doesn’t see military moving against Zardari

As rumors swirl about the status and ultimate fate of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, some in the State Department are making it clear that they don’t see him as leaving office anytime soon. Since late last month, calls for Zardari to step down have increased following the release of a list of names of ...

575907_091204_zardari2.jpg
575907_091204_zardari2.jpg

As rumors swirl about the status and ultimate fate of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, some in the State Department are making it clear that they don't see him as leaving office anytime soon.

Since late last month, calls for Zardari to step down have increased following the release of a list of names of politicians who benefited from a National Reconciliation Ordinance and the Nov. 28 expiration of the amnesty he received under that agreement.

There has also been reporting that the Pakistani military is readying a move against Zardari based on the perception that he is complicit in compromising Pakistani sovereignty by moving too close to the United States.

As rumors swirl about the status and ultimate fate of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, some in the State Department are making it clear that they don’t see him as leaving office anytime soon.

Since late last month, calls for Zardari to step down have increased following the release of a list of names of politicians who benefited from a National Reconciliation Ordinance and the Nov. 28 expiration of the amnesty he received under that agreement.

There has also been reporting that the Pakistani military is readying a move against Zardari based on the perception that he is complicit in compromising Pakistani sovereignty by moving too close to the United States.

But the perception that the military has either the will or the intent to upend Zadari isn’t shared by State Department leadership, and experts predict that although the Pakistani president is weakened, he is likely to stay at his post for the time being.

In an interview this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she doesn’t see the military as acting against Zardari. She traveled to Pakistan last month and met with top military and intelligence leaders there.

“I think that in my talking with the military, I didn’t have any indication that they have any intention of doing anything other than supporting the democratically elected government,” she said. “Now I know that there are all kinds of challenges to the current government. That is for the people of Pakistan and for your political process to work out. But of course, we want to see a strong, vibrant democracy, and that is what we are going to continue to support.”

A State Department official who works intimately on the issue spoke to The Cable on background basis and said that as far as State can tell, the tension between Zardari and the military hasn’t changed significantly as of late.

“There’s no reason for us to think these relationships are any different than they have been. There’s no indication that anything’s different,” the official said, noting: “By no means is the issue completely settled. We’re watching the situation very closely.”

Shuja Nawaz, South Asia director at the Atlantic Council, agreed with Clinton and the State Department official’s analysis.

“All the talk about the military losing confidence in President Zardari has not been supported by any direct evidence or public statements,” he said. “That’s all conjecture for now so it’s hard to say the military is orchestrating this.”

Nawaz sees three possible outcomes from the tension and pressure on Zardari. He might be ultimately forced to resign. More likely, according to Nawaz, he will be obliged to make further concessions to other political actors but will remain in power. Some analysts see Zardari’s recent transfer of control over nuclear capabilities to Prime Minister Yusuf Reza Gilani as a concession to the military in that light.

The third option is for the legislature to impeach him for alleged past crimes, but that’s unlikely because it would involve a protracted legal battle.

“Zardari is a very shrewd person in that sense and I think he is going to make a deal with [opposition leader] Nawaz Sharif in order to stay in power, but he probably has to give up something,” said Barmak Pazhwak, program officer at the United States Institute of Peace.

One Pakistani source suggested that Zadari could “pull a Putin,” whereby he cedes power to the prime minister and then, as head of his party, makes a play to have himself elected to that post. It’s unclear how successful such a ploy might be.

Meanwhile, Zadari’s relationship with the Obama administration and the U.S. government has become a political football in Pakistan. Elements of the Pakistani press, in conjunction with elements of the military, have been using incidents such as the botched rollout of the Kerry-Lugar Pakistan aid bill to accuse Zardari of both ceding Pakistani sovereignty and of being generally incompetent.

The Pakistani military is split, observers say. Some surely want to take on Zardari and are suspicious of his seemingly growing relationship with the West. Others see Zardari as manageable and don’t think it wise to wage a battle with the president at the same time they are fighting off increasing attacks from extremists.

Pakistani sources told The Cable that Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of staff of the Pakistani Army, is in the latter camp and is not actively working toward Zadari’s ouster at this stage. Zardari’s relationship with the Obama administration has benefited the Pakistani military, these sources point out, including recent sales of high-end military equipment, such as F-16 fighter jets, and more hardware could be on the way as the U.S. offers an enhanced aid package to Pakistan in conjunction with a new war strategy.

“The situation in Pakistan is sometimes called ‘managed instability’ and that’s the way it’s likely to stay,” one Pakistani source relayed.

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Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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