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Pakistan: Who's in Charge? (Clue from Washington: General Kiyani)

kiyaniQuestion of the Day: Who is the most important "reliable" leader in Pakistan?

No, it's not --- at least if you're a key official in the Obama Administration --- President Asif Ali Zardari. The correct answer is General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani (pictured).

How do I know this? Because I read David Ignatius in The Washington Post.

Ignatius is a sharp, smart journalist who writes well. He's also best considered, with his access to highly-placed Government sources and his re-presentation of their thoughts, as the media auxiliary of the State Department and the Pentagon.

When Ignatius snuck this into the conclusion of his 10 April opinion piece, "A Short Fuse in Pakistan", it was more than a throw-away comment:
If there's a positive sign in all this [political] chaos, it's that the Pakistani army isn't intervening to clean up the mess. Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief of staff, has been telling the feuding politicians to get their act together. But he seems to understand that the route to stability isn't through another army coup, but by making this unruly democracy work before it's too late.

Six days later, Ignatius extended his comment with this revelation about the Long March, "A month ago, Pakistan came close to a political breakdown that could have triggered a military coup." He explained with this account of events:
The lawyers' movement began its march on March 12, pledging to occupy Islamabad until the government restored [Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar] Chaudhry to his post. Zardari sent a police force known as the Rangers into the streets of Lahore, apparently hoping to intimidate [opposition political leader Nawaz] Sharif and the marchers. But Sharif evaded the police and joined the protesters as they headed north toward Islamabad.

Kiyani then faced the moment of decision. According to U.S. and Pakistani sources, Zardari asked the army chief to stop the march and protect Islamabad. Kiyani refused, after discussing the dilemma with his friend Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, Kiyani called Sharif and told him to return home to Lahore, according to one source. And he called the leader of the lawyers' movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, and told him to halt in the city of Gujranwala and wait for a government announcement.

Although Ignatius was careful to give credit to Zardari and Sharif as well as Kiyani and although he made clear that US officials were "hoping that the three could form a united front against the Taliban insurgency in the western frontier areas", he closed with this first-amongst-equals assessment:
On the political scorecard, Zardari came out a loser and Sharif and [Prime Minister Yousuf Raza] Gillani as winners. But the decisive actor was Kiyani, who managed to defuse the crisis without bringing the army into the streets.

And who is behind this analysis? That's not so difficult to discover: in both opinion pieces, Ignatius refers to the "visit to Islamabad by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke [Obama's envoy to Afghanistan-Pakistan] and Admiral Mike Mullen [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]" two weeks ago. As their spokesperson, he gives their impression of the weakness and division in the Pakistan political leadership:
Anne Patterson, the highly regarded U.S. ambassador, had assembled some of the nation's political elite to welcome the visiting Americans. During a question-and-answer session, a shouting match erupted between a prominent backer of President Asif Ali Zardari and a supporter of dissident Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

On some major security and intelligence issues, [Zardari] claimed no knowledge or sought to shift blame to others, and the overall impression was of an accidental president who still has an uncertain grasp on power.

This is far from the first time that Ignatius has been the conduit for Washington's view of the "right" Pakistani Government. The day of Barack Obama's election, he wrote:
What's different on the Pakistani side isn't just the secret cooperation with America. There was lots of that under the previous president, Pervez Musharraf. What's new is that Zardari and Kiyani are working openly to build popular support for their operations against the Muslim militants....And Kiyani seems determined to stop [former President Pervez] Musharraf's practice of using the [Pakistani intelligence service] ISI to maintain contact with the Afghan warlords.

What has changed in the last five months is that Zardari is no longer reliable, both in his domestic political manoeuvres and his apparent willingness to make concessions to the "militants" in northwest Pakistan. So Washington cannot expect him to implement the proper programme, again put forth by Ignatius, to curb the insurgency:
America should channel its aid through the tribal chiefs, known as maliks, rather than the corrupt Pakistani government. It should help train the Frontier Corps, a rough-hewn tribal constabulary, rather than rely on Pakistani army troops who are seen as outsiders. To curb the militant Islamic madrassas, the United States should help improve the abysmal public schools in the region.

But that, of course, raises the dilemma lurking in Ignatius's recent columns. Like it or not, the unreliable Zardari is still the legal head of state in Pakistan. Toppling him with a military coup --- even if Kiyani wanted to make the move --- would give a most un-democratic appearance to Washington's campaign in the region, as well as raising memories of the Bush Administration's ultimately ill-fated co-operation with General/President Musharraf.

So Ignatius --- speaking for Holbrooke, Mullen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and President Obama --- has to be clear that Washington helped prevent a coup last month. At the same time, the question is still hanging: what if Zardari continues to be ineffective and uncooperative?

What if, to repeat but slightly adjust Ignatius's words, Washington concludes, "this unruly democracy [can't] work before it's too late"? The least bad option, as perceived by US policymakers, may be that it's time for General Kiani to take over the top spot --- in public rather than behind the scenes --- in the Pakistani Government.

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