Scott Lucas

 

oon after the Obama Administration took office, we concluded that its Pakistan policy was going around President Asif Ali Zardari, rather than working with him. Two weeks ago, we wrote that the US was behind a de facto military leadership of Pakistani policy, especially in the fight against insurgents in the northwest of the country.

 

Now Washington’s idea of a political alternative is emerging. The New York Times revealed on Saturday that the US is trying to bring Zardari’s long-time rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (pictured), into the Pakistani Government. Administration officials told the newspaper, “Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, have both urged Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif to look for ways to work together.”

That in itself is not news. The Long March demonstrations in March exposed Zardari’s political weakness and, conversely, elevated Sharif as leader of democratic opposition. During the protests, Clinton and Holbrooke talked to both men to avoid a violent showdown.

What is significant in the latest report is the open backing of Obama officials of Sharif, formerly seen as too close to “Islamist” (the shorthand for conservative religious groups, backed by Saudi Arabia) elements in Palistan. The simple reason? In the aftermath of the Long March, Sharif is seen as generally popular in contrast to widespread dislike for Zardari. An Obama official said bluntly, “The idea here is to tie Sharif’s popularity to things we think need to be done, like dealing with the militancy.”

Washington’s readiness to ditch Zardari, or at least push him to the side, was evident last week in statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and President Obama; however, it reached a new level in leaks from General David Petraeus, the head of the US Central Command. After Petraeus spoke with US Congressmen, Fox News claimed that the General asserted “the Pakistanis have run out of excuses” for their failure to confront the insurgency.Petraeus reportedly gave the Pakistani Government two weeks to take “concrete action to destroy the Taliban”.

 

Zardari’s allies have tried to push back, rather lamely, with claims that the President is already talking to Sharif about their co-operation in Government. As the Pakistani military reclaimed the town of Buner, 60 miles north of Islamabad, back from insurgents, the Pakistani Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, used The Wall Street Journal — the preferred outlet of Zardari’s public-relations machine — to counter-attack:

President Asif Zardari has repeatedly declared the war against them a war for Pakistan’s soul…..Meanwhile, the change of administration in the U.S. has slowed the flow of assistance to Pakistan. Unfortunately, ordinary Pakistanis have begun to wonder if our alliance with the West is bringing any benefits at all.

It appears, however, that all this is too late to persuade Washington that Zardari is reliable. On Saturday, Petraeus was in all-day meetings with senior Administration officials on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It may be too early to decode the latest American moves — Secretary of Defense Gates’ interview with CNN, airing today, was recorded earlier in the week — but here’s a safe bet:

If Washington has its way, President Zardari will be pushing his chair to the back of the room.