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Pakistan's New President Will Face Old Problems


As members of Pakistan's parliament prepare to elect a new president on Saturday [9/6/08], violence in the country's tribal areas and unrest among the nation's lawyers continue. The power struggle following President Pervez Musharraf's resignation in August also has sparked concern over the Pakistan's ability to fight Islamic militants.

The widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, hopes to succeed Pervez Musharraf who resigned as president late last month shortly before impeachment proceedings were to be convened against him in parliament.

Many analysts say that Zardari's decision to run for president surprised former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who, just days earlier, withdrew his party's support for the coalition led by Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N quickly fielded a former Supreme Court chief justice as its own presidential candidate. Just five months ago, Zardari and Sharif formed a coalition to counter then-president Pervez Musharraf.

Lisa Curtis with The Heritage Foundation here in Washington says the rift in Pakistan's politics has weakened the state. "What Pakistan really needs is a leader who can demonstrate statesmanship, who can bring the various factions together, the different parties together to deal with the national crisis that is facing the country," says Curtis.

The War on Terror

Analyst Haider Mullick at the U.S. Joint Special Operations University says Asif Ali Zardari has enough support in parliament to become Pakistan's next president. But he says Zardari would succeed only if he allows the U.S. to become more involved in Pakistan's domestic affairs and the war on terror. "If Zardari provides that kind of political atmosphere where Washington can do its bidding [in combating terrorism] and Islamabad can sell the war on terror as Pakistan's own war and retain its legitimacy, and retain the coalition, whatever combination of parties get together."

Hanif Akhtar, an American businessman of Pakistani origin is optimistic about U.S.-Pakistan relations, regardless of who wins the presidential race in Islamabad. The reason, he says, is a shift in U.S. policy toward Pakistan, which, he says, had been personality-based. "They are working with the people of Pakistan and fighting against terrorism is a national priority for Pakistan. This is a kind of cancer in Pakistan's society and has to be removed," says Akhtar.

Despite Pakistan's unsettled politics, the army crackdown on militants in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan has continued for the several weeks. News reports say Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani has used Special Forces to deal with al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, and has been coordinating with NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

General Kayani's latest efforts have won praise from the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who met with General Kayani last week aboard an American aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean. Also on hand were the top American commander in Iraq, Army General David Petraeus, and other U.S. and Pakistani military officers.

The India Factor

Admiral Mullen said the meeting better defined the problem of Pakistan-based Taliban militants conducting raids inside Afghanistan. He added that he wanted to assess the cross-border violence through the eyes of a typical Pakistani commander who has to fight extremists in his own country. "He is very consistent in what he is doing. He has thought this through," said Mullen. "And he continues to move forward in an area that involves obviously the Pakistan military, his authorities over the Frontier Corps as well."

Mullen says he is encouraged by Pakistan's actions to try to stop the cross-border raids.

But Lisa Curtis at The Heritage Foundation says political instability in Pakistan has resulted in an increase in cross-border militant attacks into India. Curtis says this could damage Pakistan's relations with India, which were improving during the Musharraf era. "We have seen some increased firing across the Line of Control [in Kashmir], which is showing that the cease-fire is starting to collapse, as well as the accusations that Pakistan was involved in the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul," says Curtis.

But analyst Haider Mullick is optimistic. He says Pakistan's government has made it clear that it wants to improve trade with India, despite the long-standing dispute over Kashmir. "We [i.e., India and Pakistan] will be so economically interdependent that both countries will be able to come to a solution that is acceptable to both, rather than a [flexing of] military muscle from any side, which has been Islamabad's old policy," says Mullick.

Pakistan's Judiciary

Some experts note that the main point of contention between Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif has not been resolved. The two men differ on the issue of reinstating the more than 60 judges who were fired by Pervez Musharraf last year, allegedly to prevent a legal challenge to his reelection as president. Sharif says an executive order by the coalition government can reinstate the judiciary. But Zardari wants a constitutional amendment to do so.

Critics say Zadari is reluctant to reinstate the judges because he fears the judiciary could reverse his legal amnesty and revive corruption cases against him. Pakistani lawyers, meanwhile, continue to rally. They say the Zardari government's recent reinstatement of just eight judges was not enough. And the lawyers' movement, which demands that all of the judges be brought back, continues to polarize the nation's politics.

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