Zardari Is Going, Sharif Is Coming
The Obama administration believes the days of Asif Ali Zardari as Pakistani president are numbered. They give him no more than three to four months. The replacement US officials have their eye on now, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington and Islamabad sources, is Nawaz Sharif, leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League Party, who as past prime minister made Pakistan a nuclear power and introduced Muslim law.
Under Nawaz Sharif's leadership (as head of government twice from 1990-1993 and from 1997-1999), Pakistan became the first Islamic country to have nuclear power, carrying out successful nuclear tests in 1998, in response to India's five nuclear tests two weeks earlier.
In 1991, he proclaimed Pakistan would be governed by Islamic laws based on the Quran and Sunnah.
Sharif told his countrymen that the proposed Shariat Bill was a charter of duties and not power.
Nevertheless, Washington is treating the Muslim opposition leader as its preferred partner in Islamabad, thereby setting off the following major developments:
1. Zardari is treated as a lame duck inside and outside Pakistan, while Sharif is lionized as the next chief executive.
This dynamic led British prime minister Gordon Brown to call first on Sharif at Punjab House, Monday, April 27, prompting Zardari to cancel their joint press conference.
Brown used his 40-minute conversation with the opposition leader to praise Pakistan's political parties, especially that of his host, in restoring democracy and the rule of law. He promised Britain would always extend support and succor for the efforts of the Pakistani people to strengthen their institutions of democracy. The UK prime minister addressed the opposition leader as the coming ruler of Pakistan, even though Zardari, widower of the murdered Benazir Bhutto, won a landslide victory in general elections last September.
Sharif says Taliban does not want nukes
2. Sharif is strongly backed by Abdullah, king of Saudi Arabia. This is a key consideration for Washington because Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin Abd al-Aziz is brokering the informal US-Taliban talks for a speedy end to the Afghanistan War.
(Read DEBKA-Net-Weekly 385 lead article on Feb. 20th: Saudi Prince Live Wire in Afghanistan Deal.)
Regarding the insurgents' expanding seizure of parts of his own country – up to areas close to Islamabad – and its demand for the strict imposition of the Sharia, the opposition leader told U.S.A. Today on April 20: “They are now threatening to get out of Swat and take other areas into their custody. So we've got to avoid that situation.”
The insurgency in Swat and border areas could be defused in just two years, said Sharif, if sufficient economic development took place.
Clearly, the up-and-coming Pakistani ruler favors negotiations and economic incentives over military action for stopping Taliban advances.
His allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf believe that Sharif, while wary of directly imposing Sharia law on all Pakistan, as he attempted in 1991, will have a better understanding with Taliban on this issue too than Zadari.
3. The Barack Obama administration may find itself ultimately supporting two nuclear-armed Islamic regimes, Iran and Pakistan.
Sharif does not share the fear prevalent in the West that Taliban or al Qaeda may lay hands on Pakistani's nuclear arsenal. He is convinced that, contrary to al Qaeda, Taliban does not seek nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction. In future agreements with Islamabad and Kabul, he believes its leaders will be willing to waive claims to control these weapons.
Zardari to Taliban: You win, just stop killing us
To keep Zardari on the run, Washington has made much of Taliban's advances from the Swat Valley into the province of Buner some 90 kilometers from the Pakistani capital, accusing him of failing to get his military act together and ignoring its alerts.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources, most of Taliban's purported new seizures in northwestern Pakistan are five years old and date from the days of the pro-US Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
The difference now is that in mid-April, Zardari signed a secret pact with the insurgents permitting them to roam at will, openly and armed, in the areas under their control.
Washington is using this deal as a club for beating the Pakistani president. He is retaliating by warning the US that its hostility to his regime is counter-productive to his motivation for fending off Taliban encroachments.
On Saturday, April 25, American and Pakistani sources reported sightings of Taliban forces in a number of areas near the capital: Buner, Shangla, east of the Swat valley, Totali, which controls the highway links from Swat to Islamabad, and Mansehra, as well as in the cities of Rustam and Mardan.
Zardari's deal with Taliban consists of four major provisions, our sources reveal:
– The Taliban will discontinue its attacks on government and military targets in Islamabad. How this pact affects other Pakistani cities is unknown, but the capital is quieter than before.
– The Taliban pledge to refrain from attempts on the lives of the Pakistan president and all other administration and military figures.
– President Zardari grants Taliban forces freedom of movement in the areas where they are present, and agrees to the gradual introduction of Sharia law under Taliban supervision.
– In regions brought under Islamic law, Taliban will no longer carry arms; their guns will be stored in locations to be determined in further talks.
First Voice Raised at Home
President Zardari's policy surfaced dramatically when on April 13, he signed an accord with Maulana Fazullah, Taliban chief of Alakand, a district with three million inhabitants in the Swat Valley trading peace for the imposition of strict Sharia law in the troubled region.
Senator John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was visiting Islamabad at the time. Every official he spoke to in the Pakistani capital advised him that the Zardari regime stood foursquare against President Barack Obama's Af/Pak strategy for winning the war. The Pakistani ruler strongly disputed Washington's linkage of the situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and, most of all, US attempts to force him to switch around to perceiving Taliban and al Qaeda as his country's main foes, rather than India.
Zardari utterly rejected Obama making a US $1.2 billion aid package contingent on a Pakistani obligation to fight Taliban.
Summing up the impressions he gained from his talks in Pakistan, Sen, Kerry said Tuesday, April 21 that the Obama administration does not have an applicable policy or even a plan for action for Pakistan:
“I believe there is not in place yet an adequate policy or plan to deal with it.”
Kerry urged the White House to stop using the term “Af/Pak” to describe a unified strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, “because I think it does a disservice to both countries and to the policy. The two governments,” he said,” are “very sensitive to it” and “don't see the linkage.”
Sharif is not too far from Zardari's Taliban policy
The Obama and Zardari administrations are clearly at odds over the way each perceives the Taliban issue.
For the former, Taliban's expansion is a clear and present danger to the United States war policy and national security.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even used the words “mortal danger” with respect to the terror attacks which might be launched from these regions.
Pakistani leaders do not view their accommodations and pacts with local Taliban-affiliated leaders as dangerous to themselves or to the world. On the contrary, they see negotiations as the rational way to pacify the troubled country.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Pakistan sources, Nawaz Sharif is not expected to treat Taliban any differently than Zardari if he attains the presidential palace. In fact, in many respects, the opposition leader would take the government's rapprochement with the Taliban even further, arguing that it is the only way to end the war in Afghanistan quickly.
The difference is that Sharif would have the backing of Washington and Riyadh, a trust Zardari does not enjoy.