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US Turbulence Buffets Pakistan
Corruption and anti-American fury unravels troubled country
On my office wall hang photos of yours truly with Pakistan's last four leaders. Two -- Zia ul Haq and Benazir Bhutto -- were murdered. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted in a military coup led by photo number four, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was deposed by Pakistan's military in a slow-motion coup.
Either I'm a jinx, or leading Pakistan is a job with poor career prospects.
Now, Washington is finally getting the democracy it has been calling for in Pakistan -- and it's the mother of all backfires.
I've not met Pakistan's current president, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto. But I've written for decades about corruption charges that relentlessly follow him. Zardari, known as "Mr. 10%" from when he was in his wife's government, was in charge of approving government contracts.
In 2008, Washington sought to rescue Musharraf's foundering dictatorship by convincing the popular but exiled Benazir Bhutto to front as democratic window-dressing for continued military rule. Her price: Amnesty for a long list of corruption charges against her and her husband.
The U.S. and Britain quietly arranged the amnesty for the Bhuttos and thousands of their indicted supporters (and other political figures).
But just before Benazir's assassination, she told me jealous associates of Musharraf were gunning for her.
Asif Zardari then inherited Benazir's People's Party, Pakistan's largest. He became president, thanks to strong U.S. political and financial support.
In return, Zardari supported the U.S. war in Afghanistan and allowed the Pentagon to keep using Pakistan's bases and military personnel. Washington promised at least $8 billion.
That sleazy deal has now come unstuck as Pakistan's newest, rather improbable democratic hero, Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, enforced the law by reinstating the corruption charges.
Zardari has presidential immunity against criminal charges. But his chief lieutenants face prosecution, notably regime strongman, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, and Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar. Both are key supporters and facilitators of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, America's use of Pakistani bases and Pakistan's war against its Pashtun tribesmen.
Opposition parties are demanding Zardari and senior aides resign. Islamabad is in an uproar just when Washington needs Pakistan's government to intensify the war against the so-called Pakistani Taliban and support growing U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and intensifying drone attacks inside Pakistan.
Skeletons are dancing out of Zardari's closets: $63 million in illegal kickbacks and commissions allegedly hidden in Swiss bank accounts by the Bhuttos; Zardari's estimated personal fortune of $2 billion; luxurious properties in the U.S., France, Spain and Britain, and on it goes. Zardari spent 11 years in jail in Pakistan on corruption charges -- which Benazir claimed were politically motivated. He avoided trial in Switzerland by claiming mental illness.
The Bhuttos remain one of the largest feudal landowners in a desperately poor nation where annual income is $1,027 US and illiteracy is over 50%. Pakistan has been ruled since its creation in 1947 by either callous feudal landlords, who bought and sold politicians like bags of basmati rice, or by generals.
The Zardari's days as Washington's man in Islamabad are numbered. Anti-American fury is surging with popular claims that Pakistan has been "occupied" by the U.S., treated like a third-rate banana republic and is run by corrupt, U.S.-installed stooges.
Many Pakistanis blame the current bloody wave of bombings in their nation on U.S. mercenaries from Xe (formerly Blackwater) and old foe India staging revenge attacks.
Most Pakistanis believe Washington is bent on tearing apart their unstable nation to seize its nuclear weapons.
Washington is almost back to square one in turbulent Pakistan. When Zardari goes or is kicked upstairs as an impotent figurehead, attention will turn to Pakistan's 617,000-man military and its commander, General -- or should we say "president-elect?" -- Ashfaq Kiyani.
As we enter 2010, the ugly acronym, "Afpak," will bedevil, befuddle and consume the Obama White House that so unwisely and rashly ignored Gen. Douglas MacArthur's wise warning to avoid land wars in Asia.