Judging from the breathless reporting out of Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zardari is only hanging onto power by the skin of his teeth. Zardari and many of his closest allies face serious political troubles because Pakistan’s supreme court recently overturned a Musharraf-era amnesty deal that had allowed him, his then-wife Benazir Bhutto, and a raft of other politicians to brush off unsettled cases of graft and corruption and return to government office.
Whatever the legal merits of Zardari's case, this judicial action poured lighter fluid onto an anti-Zardari flame that had already been burning for many months. If left untended, this flame could again consume Pakistan in the sort of destabilizing political protests experienced at the end of the Musharraf regime.
The weakening or fragmentation of the PPP could exacerbate longstanding interprovincial conflicts in Pakistani politics and further sap the state’s capacity to confront the extremists and insurgents who keep Washington’s policymakers up at night.
For the Obama administration, Zardari’s political troubles pose an especially tricky challenge. After the White House’s second Af-Pak strategy review culminated in a pledge to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, there is no doubt that the United States needs a strong partner in Islamabad in order to advance its regional counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts. A distracted Zardari hounded by opposition forces and an activist supreme court hardly qualifies. As long as this precarious condition persists, Islamabad’s civilian government will be unable to deliver short-term improvements in security, much less to begin institutional reforms and make investments that are needed to promote stability and good governance over the long run.
• Kenneth M. Pollack: Could We Still Lose Iraq? For Washington, watching Zardari teeter along is certainly an exercise in frustration, but lending him a helping hand would almost certainly make things worse. Many Pakistanis already dismiss Zardari for being too close to the unpopular Americans. Washington’s capacity for deft political influence in Islamabad is uneven at best, and the denouement of the Musharraf drama should have proven to U.S. officials the many perils of tying their fate to a tarnished Pakistani leader.
Yet the Obama team’s other realistic alternatives are also unappealing. Should Zardari fall hard, he might take the Pakistan People’s Party—or PPP, one of Pakistan’s most liberal, and its only truly national party—down with him. Pakistan’s other major parties are more regional, ethnic, or Islamist in composition; the weakening or fragmentation of the PPP could exacerbate longstanding interprovincial conflicts in Pakistani politics and further sap the state’s capacity to confront the extremists and insurgents who keep Washington’s policymakers up at night.
The party most likely to gain from PPP weakness is Nawaz Sharif’s wing of the Pakistan Muslim League. From Washington’s perspective, Sharif’s pro-business reputation is reasonably appealing, but his poisoned relationship with the army (Sharif’s last term ended with Musharraf’s coup) raises serious questions about whether he can work with army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. For Washington, a Sharif-Kayani breakdown would be no better than the present Zardari-Kayani schism, and could be even more destructive.
Zardari’s collapse could also end Pakistan’s latest experiment in civilian democracy. To be clear, Pakistan could be perfectly democratic without Zardari. Yet the political uncertainty surrounding his departure could invite intervention by Pakistan’s army, which might opportunistically reassert its prerogatives. This time around, the army is unlikely to run Pakistan directly, as Musharraf did. That was considered too damaging to the professionalism of the institution and to its public reputation. For the generals, installing a pliant civilian government, perhaps one headed by a faction of the post-Zardari PPP, would be a far more attractive option.
Of course, the more superficial the democratic veneer, the harder it will be for the Obama administration to look the other way. More troubling, another bout with repressive military rule would fuel public alienation and, by extension, the growth of Pakistani extremism—hardly in Washington’s long-term interest.
Recognizing that there are no magic bullet solutions to politics in Pakistan, the Obama administration should brace itself for a bumpy ride in the near term and steer clear of costly entanglements with specific Pakistani leaders. The U.S. interest will be best served if the legal proceedings in Islamabad are rapid, efficient, and evenly applied. If this spells the end for the Zardari presidency, members of his cabinet, or the PPP-led governing coalition, it is best to accept the new reality, pick up the pieces, and just move on.
At the same time, the White House should put members of the Pakistani political, judicial, and military leadership on notice that U.S. interests in Islamabad are fixed; Washington seeks stability, partnership against extremist violence, and good governance over the long run. And to the extent that other Pakistani leaders are prepared to shoulder these responsibilities, the United States should make itself ready to forge ahead with them.
Daniel Markey is the senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is writing a book on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.