Pakistani PM seeks to dispel rumors of army rift

December 17, 2011 - 5:05 AM
Pakistan President Under Pressure

In this photo taken Sept. 9, 2008, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari pauses during a press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan. Pakistan's president, recovering from a likely "mini stroke" in his Dubai home with no word on his return, is locked in a gathering struggle with the powerful army and political opponents over a secret memo sent to Washington seeking its help in averting a supposed military coup earlier this year.

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's prime minister dismissed speculation of a rift between the government and the military over a secret memo sent to Washington seeking its help in averting a supposed military coup, saying the country was committed to democracy.

Political tensions have soared ahead of a hearing by Pakistan's Supreme Court into the circumstances surrounding the memo. The absence of President Asif Ali Zardari, recovering from a likely "mini stroke" in his Dubai home with no word on his return, has only added to rumors that the current civilian administration is in possible fatal trouble.

Zardari's critics are hoping the scandal will lead to his ouster, and delighted in portraying his trip to Dubai on Dec. 6 as a flight from the fallout from the memo. The president's aides have denied that, and most independent analysts believe the veteran politician, who has outlasted numerous predictions of his demise since taking office in 2008, will ride it out.

Tensions between the army and the government could complicate American attempts to rebuild ties with Pakistan, a country that many U.S. officials see as key to shepherding peace in Afghanistan. Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan in late November killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the border, hammering relations already strained by American suspicions that Islamabad is playing both sides in the Afghan war and virulent anti-U.S. sentiments inside Pakistan.

Late Friday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani met with army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani to discuss the memo.

Gilani said in a statement afterward that he rejected the notion of a "standoff" between the army and the civilian leadership.

"The government of Pakistan and its institutions remain committed to their constitutional roles and obligations to a democratic and prosperous future for Pakistan," he said.

Pakistan has a long history of army coups or behind the scenes meddling by the generals to engineer pliant regimes, often with the support of the judiciary. That has left the country's 180 million people especially receptive to the idea that the collapse of the government is just around the corner.

Pakistan's envoy to the United States, Husain Haqqani, resigned last month amid allegations that he masterminded what has been dubbed a "treasonous" memo. Then U.S. military chief Adm. Mike Mullen has said he received the note, but ignored it.

With questions swirling over whether the president himself was aware of the letter, Zardari's main political rival petitioned the Supreme Court to hold an inquiry into the affair. Moving with rare speed, the court swiftly asked for statements from 10 people, including Haqqani, Gen. Kayani, Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha and American-Pakistani businessman Mansoor Ijaz, who allegedly arrange for the memo to be delivered and then went on to reveal its existence via the media.

On Wednesday, the deadline for submissions, the Supreme Court — widely considered to be hostile to the Zardari government — said it had received statements from everyone except the president. The government said a parliamentary probe into the affair is enough, and it is unclear whether Zardari will cooperate.

In a new twist to the scandal, former U.S. national security adviser Gen. James Jones, who acted as an intermediary between Ijaz and Mullen, said in a sworn affidavit delivered to the court that he had no reason to believe that Haqqani had anything to do with the memo. He also said that he didn't find the memo "credible" and questioned why Ijaz, a businessmen and part-time journalist, would deliver it. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the affidavit Saturday.

Officials have not revealed what is wrong with Zardari, though this week did release a statement by his doctor saying he had lost consciousness for several minutes and was suffering from pain in his arm. It didn't give a diagnosis, however. One associate has privately said Zardari suffered a "mini-stroke" that had left no lasting damage.

The 56-year-old, with a history of heart troubles, left hospital on Wednesday. But aides have not said when he will travel to Pakistan. So long as he remains abroad, rumors will continue.

"Mr. Zardari needs to return to Pakistan to try and calm nerves and quell speculation that refuses to die down," Pakistan's daily Dawn newspaper said in an editorial. "Like it or not, the reality of Pakistan is that threats to the democratic process do lurk in the shadows."

Zardari, who was thrust to the presidency after his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by militants in 2007, has never been particularly popular. His party has a majority in parliament, and his lawmakers are expected to give it a majority in the Senate in elections in March.

That prospect has allegedly prompted hardline lawmakers to seek his ouster immediately.

"They are creating a lot of fuss, they want something to happen, either through the Supreme Court or the army or through street agitation," said political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi. "Still, I think he can manage it, and linger on for a while."

Many are questioning why the president doesn't announce when he will return.

One possible reason is the general incompetence of those close to him. Another is that he is too ill to communicate his wishes to those around him, and with the boss incapacitated, his aides aren't brave enough to say anything.

While Zardari is a skilled operator in the frequently below-the-belt world of Pakistani politics, he has been known to ignore, or be unaware, of how his actions are playing in the street. When the world was rushing to help Pakistan recover from devastating floods in 2010, he flew to his family chateaux in France, triggering disbelief and outrage.