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Zardari's heavy political baggage

By Owen Bennett-Jones
Today programme

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari
Asif Ali Zardari faces mounting problems in Pakistan

Pakistan's President Asif Zardari is meeting with the UK's Prime Minister David Cameron as floods, diplomatic tensions and insurgency compete for his attention.

Pakistan's first military ruler Field Marshal Ayub Khan once said his job was rather like trying to stop some frogs escaping from a bucket with nothing but bare hands.

As soon as everything seemed to be under control, another frog suddenly leapt out at an unpredictable angle.

Asif Zardari must feel a bit like that. He used to joke that he only lived in two places in Pakistan - the prime minister's house or a prison cell.

That was when his wife Benazir Bhutto was alive. Now he has the best address of all - the Presidential Palace - and he got there on the back of a wave of anguish that swept the country after her assassination.

It was a breathtaking achievement. Benazir Bhutto's supporters used to say that if she had become a bit corrupt it was because Asif Zardari had misled her.

Asif Zardari's son Bilawal stands between him and French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Zardari harbours great ambitions for his son, Bilawal (centre)

But then he was the one in power demanding the support and loyalty of her adherents. Despite a few high-level defections he has, for the most part, kept the Pakistan People's Party intact.

He sees his next task as transferring dynastic power to the next generation.

Straight after Benazir Bhutto's murder, Asif Zardari changed his son's name from Bilawal Zardari to Bilawal Zardari Bhutto. The Bhutto name still has the power to mobilise tens of millions of Pakistani votes.

But for all that, the sympathy vote has dissipated and that is just one of his problems.

Afraid for his security, Zardari rarely leaves the President Palace. He is coping with countless plots to kill him, civil strife, suicide bombs, US bombs, the floods - and those remarks from David Cameron.

In context

After 9/11 Western forces toppled the Taliban but within months Pakistanis were predicting Western defeat.

A flood victim in Pakistan

In more than eight years I have never met a senior Pakistani military officer who believed the West could prevail in Afghanistan and they have formulated their policies on that basis.

For years politicians and officials from London and Washington have been visiting Islamabad saying defeat is not an option, fight with us. If it takes 20 or 30 years, a generation, so be it we will stick it out. True, we abandoned you after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, but this time it will be different.

Pakistani officers never believed it. And now that Washington and London are talking about leaving, not staying, those officers can be forgiven for thinking they were right.

The question is what will be left behind in Afghanistan after the Western forces leave? The West fears a weak and corrupt Afghan government will leave space for jihadis to extend their influence.

The Pakistanis fear a weak and corrupt Afghan government will leave space for the Indians to extend their influence.

The Pakistani army may see the Taliban as a problem - a big one - but it sees India as the greater long-term threat. Pakistan's military academies have, for decades, taught that the country needs strategic depth.

The threat of a land invasion from India means the country needs to know its long border with Afghanistan is secure.

Asif Ali Zardari
Zardari took power after the death of his wife, Benazir Bhutto

In addition, the lengthy conflict with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir has led the Pakistani army to have a close relationship with some jihadi outfits.

Having failed to defeat the Indians in Kashmir in open war, Pakistan came to rely on a proxy, covert force of militants to fight there instead.

It encouraged the military to think it could switch militant outfits on and off at will. And, despite the Taliban's brutal campaign in Pakistan, some in the military still think the West exaggerates the threat posed by Islamic militants.

But London and Washington believe their ally is, at the very least, not actively opposing the forces that are attacking British and American soldiers.

When Pakistan's president meets Britain's prime minister, both men will know that Asif Zardari doesn't control security policy and that the army and the intelligence agency does.

They also know David Cameron's comments about Pakistan facing two ways were, in fact, not that new. The US has said similar things.

The problem is first, that Mr Cameron said it in India; secondly, that US aid to Pakistan is now counted in billions of dollars.

That buys the politicians in Washington a little more licence to say it as they see it.

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