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The Political undoing of Zardari

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 04, 2009

    For the past few weeks pressure has been mounting on Asif Ali Zardari to give up some of the constitutional powers that he inherited from his predecessor General Pervez Musharraf. Zardari’s decision to transfer responsibility for the Nuclear Command Authority to the Prime Minister came amidst a visible decline in his authority and the Army’s view of him as a ‘security risk’.

    Zardari’s political decline began when he attempted to redefine Pakistan’s security parameters – an exclusive domain of the Army. The Army has been unhappy with several of his pronouncements but had kept quiet because of the unpopularity it had acquired during General Musharraf’s regime. It closely watched Zardari replacing Musharraf as the most allied ally of the United States. Under US pressure the ISI was transferred from the control of the Ministry of Defence to that of the Interior Ministry – a decision that was reversed within twenty four hours of its promulgation. To the utter shock of the Army, Zardari, soon after taking over office, stated in an interview to Wall Street Journal that “India has never been a threat to Pakistan” and went on to add that Kashmir freedom fighters are terrorists – leaving the Army, opposition and religious political parties fuming. Later speaking via satellite to the Hindustan Times Conclave organized at New Delhi on November 22, 2008, he said “I do not feel threatened by India and India should not feel threatened from us…today we have a parliament which is already pre-agreed upon a friendly relationship with India. In spite of our disputes, we have a great future together.” Zardari went on to add that Pakistan is not going to be the first country to use its nuclear weapons, striking at the very core of Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine of first-use. He emphasized greater trade between the two countries as a way forward. These statements were not liked by the Army, which was confirmed on November 19, 2009 by PPP information Secretary Fauzia Wahab who admitted that the President and Army Chief have major differences on threat perceptions from India.

    As if the Army did not have enough of his policy prescription on security matters, Zardari announced the dispatch of the Director General of ISI to India for help with investigation of the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai without consulting the Army. In fact, National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Muhammad Ali Durrani, who, after consulting with only the President, admitted that Ajmal Kasab is a Pakistani citizen, had to be sacked by the Prime Minister under pressure from the Army. To sideline Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani was encouraged by the military to assert his authority. It is thus not surprising to see that Gilani is slowly emerging out of Zardari’s shadow and challenging the latter’s decisions. What Zardari failed to notice was the Army’s growing political clout following a brief lull after Musharraf’s exit. By this time, military success in Swat had also restored some of the Army’s lost prestige flowing from several unsuccessful operations in the FATA region. Rise of tensions between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack also helped restore the Army’s reputation as ‘saviour of nation’. Its successful political intervention to avert the crisis in Punjab by restoring the government of Shahbaz Sharif and its role in the restitution of the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chowdhury enhanced its relevance in Pakistan’s polity.

    The growing close relations between Zardari and the United States have also been a sore point between the civilian government and the Army. The Army felt that Zardari was trying to sideline it in important decision making pertaining to the war on terror. It also felt that Zardari’s permissiveness was adding to the assertiveness of the United States and America’s constant exhortation to do more. The Kerry Lugar bill which committed US$7.5 billion over five years to Pakistan with a precondition that necessitates civilian oversight of the military was the last straw that broke the Army’s tolerance. The Army could not suppress its growing discomfort with the civilian government. After discussions in a Corp Commanders meeting, the Army publicly expressed its ‘concerns’ on the Kerry-Lugar bill.

    Zardari cannot be removed constitutionally given the fact that PPP continues to have a majority in the Parliament. The Army is therefore trying to pressure him into giving up some of the powers that he has constitutionally inherited. To this effect, the President in his address to Parliament has already committed that he would give up the powers that he had acquired through the 17th Constitutional Amendment. The uneasy relationship between the PPP and Army is not new in Pakistan’s political context. It needs to be underlined here that the ISI had secretly wired the discussions of the 1988 Benazir-Rajiv meeting to the opposition in order to oust Benazir from office in 1989.

    The National Reconciliation Ordinance, a major bone of contention, has ceased to exist creating further uncertainty for Zardari’s political career. As long as Zardari remains the President he would be entitled to legal immunity. However, there are efforts to reopen cases to put moral pressure on him. Some 8,041 people had obtained relief under the NRO that includes members of all political parties. The PPP’s relations with the PML-N from the beginning have been contentious and there have been major disagreements over many important issues. Though the prospect of a PML-N government is not a preferable option for the Army, at the moment it would be happy with a weaker President. To this effect many analysts in Pakistan believe that malicious propaganda has been mounted against Zardari with the help of the media and blessings of the Establishment.

    Zardari’s voluntary relinquishment of power over the National Command Authority (NCA) is being touted as a major compromise. The National Command Bill of 2009, which is under consideration in the Pakistan National Assembly, proposes several changes. It needs to be noted that in 1999 under tremendous pressure from the international community Pakistan had announced the structuring of the National Command Authority under civilian command with the Head of the Government – the Prime Minister – as Chairperson. However, when the NCA was formally set up in 2000, General Musharraf who was then the Chief Executive appointed himself as the Chairperson. In 2007, Pakistan constituted the National Command Authority through an Ordinance (no. LXX) with the objective of providing a “comprehensive legal basis for the functions and powers of the National Command Authority.” The NCA was authorized to create a separate and distinct service of employees given the sensitive and classified nature of work falling within its domain.

    An elected President (and now the Prime Minister) chairing the NCA gives him notional control over nuclear weapons and thus creates a sense of civilian ownership. In reality it is the Pakistan Army, no matter who is the Chair, which will have an upper hand both in the Employment Control Committee and the Development Control Committee. Such a change of guard from President to Prime Minister does not portend any major shift in civilian control over the Army. Earlier Prime Ministers were not allowed to visit Kahuta – the core of Pakistan’s Nuclear Establishment – and they continue to have no say in military affairs. Therefore, the current change in the Chair of the NCA merely indicates the declining power of President Zardari and does not necessarily mean empowerment of the civilian government. The current state of politics only suggests that the Army has bounced back as a major player, too soon for the comfort of the people who are pinning their hopes on Pakistan’s democratic future.