Editor’s Note: This analysis was updated March 16 to reflect events in Pakistan.
Asif Ali Zardari never aspired publicly to be a political leader in Pakistan — that is until the assassination of his wife, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. In his heyday as first spouse he seemed content to use his proximity to power to enrich himself behind the scenes while leading a playboy life. Now it must be clear even to those in Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party who struggled valiantly to support him after he claimed the presidency of Pakistan last year that he has been a colossal disaster–to the nation and the party.
The spectacle on Sunday of an opposition leader whom Zardari tried to silence leading a huge, enthusiastic march against the president toward Pakistan’s capital, barging calmly out of house arrest, through police lines and unafraid of military troops, is only the latest and most telling of testimonies to the president’s misjudgments and blunders. He has almost succeeded in making the rule of General Pervez Musharraf look good.
By early Monday, Zardari capitulated to a major demand by Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader: former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who had been sacked by Musharraf, would be returned to the bench. Sharif stopped the march, which the government seemed intent on blocking outside the capital in any case, but the fate of Justice Chaudhry is not Zardari’s only problem.
The long-simmering political confrontation in Pakistan poses multiple problems for the United States. The decision to throw in America’s lot with the Bhutto-Zardari clan in 2007 was made by the Bush administration, another legacy with which the Obama team will need to wrestle. Political chaos is the last environment the US needs as it tries to forge a workable partnership with Pakistan in the face of Islamic pressures, and in advance of an international conference on the future of Afghanistan. What if, in a scenario almost too worrying to contemplate, Zardari were to be forced to step down, or a new parliamentary election called, with an unpredictable outcome? The United States would have to start over cultivating political allies capable of addressing a spectrum of crises.
In recent weeks, with the Pakistan economy in decline after some improvement in the Musharraf years, new pressures from India, Islamic militancy not only on the rise but also able to cobble together no-go zones under Shariah law in previously moderate pockets of the country, broadcast bans imposed and threats of military force, Zardari has thoroughly alienated Sharif’s home base of Punjab, the most prosperous and populous of the country’s four provinces.