The Playboy Running Pakistan

As Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari heads for Washington—amid a fresh surge of violence in his country—Nicholas Schmidle explains how a Karachi playboy and accused murderer became our ally, and why his days are numbered.

04.30.09 9:25 PM ET

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari relishes politics behind closed doors. But as his army continues to battle Taliban militants in northwest Pakistan with fighter jets, air-dropped commandos, and helicopter gunships, Zardari has been keeping an exceptionally low profile.

Perhaps for good reason. Even though the military has reclaimed some of the territory overrun by the Talibs last week in Buner district, the Taliban are still holding some 50 kidnapped Pakistani soldiers hostage, tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced, and there’s a nasty ethnic conflict festering in Karachi that’s already left dozens dead. If part of a president’s job is to guarantee the safety of his people, Zardari is having an awful time of it these days.

Zardari is, in many ways, a fluke president. A Karachi socialite and playboy who reportedly turned his basement into a disco, Zardari stabled his polo horses at the prime minister's official residence during Bhutto's first term in office.

The Taliban’s conquest of Buner, an advance that brought them within 70 miles of Islamabad, triggered international alarm. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to warn the Senate that "Pakistan poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world." But Zardari’s office issued just one vacuous, disingenuous statement, declaring that military action was only "one aspect of the solution" and that his government "will not succumb to any pressure from the militants." On the first part, he’s right: Military efforts to crush the Taliban are only likely to breathe life into the insurgency. On the second point, however, he’s just bluffing: The fact is that Zardari's government—and Pervez Musharraf's before that—have already succumbed in northwest Pakistan, both having negotiating peace deals that allowed the Taliban safe havens.

When Zardari shows up in Washington next week, he’ll likely try to justify these concessions as part of a bigger strategy. But will the White House believe him? Could Zardari possibly have something else up his sleeve? It's unlikely, and here's why:

Zardari is, in many ways, a fluke president. Twenty years ago, he married Benazir Bhutto and was lifted from relative obscurity into Pakistan's most powerful political dynasty. A Karachi socialite and playboy who had reportedly turned his basement into a disco, Zardari stabled his polo horses at the prime minister's official residence during Bhutto's first term in office. Meanwhile, he earned the nickname "Mr. Ten Percent" for the kickback he purportedly took on government contracts. Zardari would spend most of his marriage in prison on charges ranging from corruption to murdering his brother-in-law. Though never convicted, he has always carried a certain, well, unsavory reputation as a crooked, back-room operator.

Zardari wouldn't remain in the shadows forever. After Bhutto's assassination in December 2007, Zardari succeeded her as chairman of the Pakistan People's Party. Two months later, the PPP won a plurality of seats in nationwide parliamentary elections. Zardari, at this point arguably the most powerful man in the country, put his glad-handing skills to good use. He cobbled together an unlikely alliance and the PPP formed a government. In August, he spearheaded the impeachment proceedings that forced Musharraf to step down. And just three weeks after that, he had satisfied enough lawmakers that they elected him president. (In Pakistan, the president is chosen by the sitting assemblies.)

But Zardari shared something—a certain nemesis—with Musharraf. In 2007, Musharraf had sacked the chief justice of the supreme court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, twice as Chaudhry's court prepared to declare Musharraf's reelection bid unconstitutional. Thousands of lawyers, and tens of thousands of their supporters, massed in the streets to demand the rule of law and an independent judiciary. The street protests weakened Musharraf and resulted in his downfall. Zardari took power in September promising to restore Chaudhry. But he had his own beef with Chaudhry over past corruption cases, so Zardari deliberated. Pakistanis lost any trust in him and the lawyers returned in numbers. This time, they pledged to topple Zardari. Last month, Zardari conceded and returned Chaudhry to his bench. But he had already squandered every ounce of popularity that he—or the PPP—once had.

For Pakistan to wage a successful counterinsurgency against the Taliban, the government needs two things: the support of the people, and the army. A poll conducted in January showed Zardari's approval rating at 19 percent. And while cutting deals in the halls of power might have worked for some, the Pakistani military seems less impressed by his connivance. When the PPP-led government tried to exert control over Pakistan's supreme intelligence agency, the ISI, the military flat out refused, forcing Zardari and the PPP to back off. Then, after terrorists rampaged Mumbai and killed almost 200 people, Pakistan's national security adviser admitted that the lone remaining gunman was, in fact, a Pakistani. (Until then, the government had denied any involvement.) The national security adviser, a retired major general and former ambassador to the United States, was a valuable liaison between the civilian government and the army. But after his admission, he was promptly fired for "indiscretion" and the information ministry denied the gunman was Pakistani. Then, an hour later, the foreign office reversed course and concurred with the adviser's assessment.

Zardari would spend most of his marriage in prison on charges ranging from corruption to murdering his brother-in-law. Though never convicted, he has always carried a certain, well, unsavory reputation.

"Some very serious differences at the highest level in Islamabad had been spectacularly laid bare within the space of a few hours," said an editorial the next day in The News. And Zardari's response to the whole thing? He called the adviser to apologize, but since the adviser technically worked for the prime minister, who had sacked him, and not the president, Zardari confessed that he was powerless to do anything. It appeared that there were more than just divisions between the government and the army, the lawyers, the Taliban, the intelligence agencies, Afghanistan and India. They now existed within the civilian leadership itself.

Critics of Musharraf used to deride him whenever he bombarded the Taliban and categorize the operations as part of "Musharraf's War." Zardari has fallen into many of the same traps—mainly the public perception of doing America's bidding—but few people call Zardari's sporadic operations "Zardari's war." That would be almost giving him too much credit and control. When Musharraf was recently asked by a reporter to reflect on his tenure, he confessed to have resigned last summer because he feared being "impotent." Despite his playboy past, Zardari may find himself proclaiming impotence soon too.

Nicholas Schmidle, who lived in Pakistan from 2006 to 2008, is a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan, which will be published May 12.

Xtra Insight: Reihan Salam: Obama’s Pakistan Nightmare

Xtra Insight: Fatima Bhutto: Stop Funding My Failed State

Xtra Insight: Leslie H. Gelb: The Taliban Ticking Clock