New helmsman for Pakistan's war on terror
Asif Ali Zardari leads the race to replace Musharraf in Saturday's presidential election.
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Like his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, a strong US ally but an unpopular figure who resigned in August, Mr. Zardari has expressed strong support for fighting terrorism. But his record on democratic reform is less convincing so far.
Without such reforms, which would weaken Zardari's powers as president, "the anger which was against Musharraf will be against Zardari," says Khalid Rahman, an analyst at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad. America does not want Pakistan to return to the volatility of Mr. Musharraf's last year in power.
With Musharraf gone, US officials have focused more on establishing ties with the Pakistani Army than with its new civilian government. Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has met Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani five times since October.
From the perspective of US policymakers, Zardari and the two other candidates are unlikely to fill the void left by Musharraf. For much of his tenure, Musharraf was both president and chief of Army staff, meaning he united in one man what the Bush administration sought most: the means to act against terrorists and the political will to do it. Musharraf's successor will no longer wear both hats.
As the security in Afghanistan has steadily deteriorated, pressure has mounted for US forces to play a greater role in antiterror efforts in neighboring Pakistan, where many of the terrorists seek sanctuary.
Admiral Mullen's meetings with General Kayani suggest that the Pentagon is trying to cudgel the Pakistanis into greater action – and that it sees its greatest post-Musharraf ally as Kayani, not a president or prime minister.
Indeed, Wednesday's strike in South Waziristan, which was the first time American ground forces are alleged to have led an operation on Pakistani soil, suggests that Musharraf's departure has left a political void.
Musharraf kept tighter control of the government than the civilian government has, says Mr. Rahman. "That has made the job of Americans easier to take their liberty," he adds, citing the attack.
There is little suspense going into Saturday's election because Pakistan's president is not chosen by the people. Instead, he is elected by the four provincial assemblies and the national parliament. Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) – formerly led by his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto – and its allies have a collective majority there. For this reason, his two competitors – a former judge, Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, and former journalist,Mushahid Hussain Sayed – do not appear to have the votes to challenge Zardari.