Accessibility links

Breaking News

Pakistan President's Diplomatic Visit to Britain Is Part Domestic Politics

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has been visiting Britain for most of this week amid a high-profile diplomatic dispute concerning recent comments by Britain's prime minister linking Pakistan to terrorism. The Pakistani leader's visit, however, also has a domestic political agenda.

The Pakistani prime minister's talks - first in France and then in Britain - have certainly made headlines. The visit comes amid a highly public diplomatic dispute between Britain and Pakistan, sparked by comments by British Prime Minister David Cameron in which he accused Pakistan of looking the other way when it comes to terrorism.

While Mr. Cameron said he was only speaking frankly, Pakistanis were outraged, and President Asif Ali Zardari let it be known he was coming here to speak frankly in return. In France, Mr. Zardari took a swipe at the West's strategy in Afghanistan, telling French media the war against the Taliban is being lost.

The president's trip and comments also are geared to a domestic audience with an eye on Pakistan's powerful military establishment, said Pakistan expert Farzana Shaikh of London's Chatham House research center.

"I think what's going on here is Mr. Zardari attempting to convey to his constituency back home that the political leadership, as well as the military leadership, is able to convey Pakistan's interests, is able to defend Pakistan's interests as well as anyone else, and certainly the prerogative of defending those interests does not lie with the military," said Shaikh.

Shaikh also said the president may hope to enhance his own standing, which is not that strong back home, and that of the political leadership vis-à-vis the military. It is not an easy task, she said.

"This is going to be a very hard act for him to pursue, particularly when … there is very, very deep hostility to the United States and to the West more generally in Pakistan," said Shaikh.

President Zardari has been harshly criticized by some within the Pakistani community in Britain, as well as from back home, for taking this trip - especially at a time when Pakistan is experiencing the worst flooding in decades. Critics say he should have stayed home to help handle the crisis.

South Asia analyst Gareth Price (Chatham House) says it is a no-win situation for the president.

"To some extent the Pakistani president is criticized no matter what he does," said Price. "Given David Cameron's statement, if he hadn't come, some voices would have been saying he should go and put the record straight. But it does seem politically naïve, I guess, at best."

In addition, Mr. Zardari has been criticized for staying at a family chateau in France and in luxury hotels in Britain during this trip, while millions back home have been affected by the flooding.