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May 5, 2009
Who’s got the power in Pakistan?

U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Wednesday. Source: UN Photo

In Pakistan, a peace deal between the government and the Taliban is on the verge of collapse. As the conflict escalates, Taliban forces are tightening their hold on the Swat region and civilians are fleeing

U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, on Wednesday. The Obama administration has criticized Pakistan’s efforts to fight the Taliban as insufficient. Obama is expected to continue to press Zardari to crack down on both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as well as ensure bettesecurity for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner discusses what the U.S. and Zardari can hope to accomplish, though the Pakistani military is calling the shots. 

Who’s got the power?

That’s a good question with — unfortunately –- an easy answer, as President Obama meets in Washington with Pakistan’s civilian, democratically-elected president, Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari was elected about six months ago, and his lot has never been more tenuous.

Zardari’s goal from the visit to Washington this week is probably foremost to promote his own viability as the leader of a country of 176 million people. That’s enough of a problem. He can’t seem too friendly to the United States — Pakistanis are concerned about meddling by U.S. armed forces in the fight against the Taliban. He can’t seem to be taciturn, but at the same time, he needs the Obama administration’s support.

All the while, the gorilla in the room won’t be in the room: Who controls Pakistan? Who controls Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal? Who’s got the power? The short answer is: Zardari doesn’t; the military does. Zardari has a weak relationship, if any, with the Pakistani military, which calls the shots on dealing with the driving Taliban insurgency that threatens the country.

Zardari hasn’t much to do with fighting the Taliban. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid warned last month about “the galloping Talibanization” of the country, in which more than 10 percent of the territory is controlled by insurgents. If Zardari were involved, he probably wouldn’t want to stray too far from Islamabad.

Here are points from the important Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, on Tuesday. It sounds like a war — and that’s what it is.

“Residents told DawnNews that Taliban militants had consolidated their positions in Mingora city from where they were targeting security forces.”

“Heavy shelling was witnessed in Swat’s Qambar area as militants engaged the security forces.”

“A statement from the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said on Tuesday that militants in Swat had blown up a police station and fired at check posts of security forces at Shangla Top, Shamzoi bridge, Bariam bridge and grid station Mingora.”

“Militants also looted a store of the World Food Programme in Swat and took away 217 bags of wheat and 400 cans of edible oil, the statement said.”

“Frightened residents fled suburban areas in Mingora on Tuesday, where the Taliban concentrated a two-year insurgency, after the army issued an evacuation order that ignited fears of an imminent new offensive, witnesses said.”

Instead of fighting the war, Zardari is meeting with U.S. officials who are not counting on Zardari to do very much. U.S. military officials are maintaining contact with Pakistan’s military leaders, and with Zardari’s civilian rivals. That’s the best they can do right now in a dismal scenario with no immediate answers or hopes for success.

– Peter Eisner

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Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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