What was intended by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari as a quiet five-day trip to Britain has become a glaring international spectacle for the president, whose country is in the throes of an epic flood and an epic war.
But the trip has changed for a flood of reasons: Last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron, while visiting India, implied that Pakistan was playing a duplicitous game, that it “exports” terror to India and Afghanistan. The remarks caused a huge row in the south Asian state.
Zardari arrives in the UK today amid palpable anger at home over leaving when he could be directing emergency flood relief and consoling victims. The Taliban war has grown hotter inside and outside Pakistan – and a flood of recent WikiLeaks documents purporting covert support by Pakistan for the Taliban are likely to dog the prime minister and his team. The crisis in Kashmir has turned suddenly ugly, and yesterday a leading political ally of Zardari’s People’s Party in Karachi was assassinated.
Today, two British Pakistani members of parliament, Khalid Mahmood and Lord Ahmed, an influential figure, canceled a meeting with Zardari, saying it was an inappropriate time for a visit. Zardari’s generals, who scotched a British visit after Mr. Cameron's comments, also opposed his trip.
Chatham House analyst Farzana Shaikh in London says that “this will not be an easy visit. [Zardari] comes to Britain in the face of furious opposition in Pakistan to the trip, including his allies.... The Cameron comments gave him an opportunity to bow out without losing face. But he has a knack for being out of the country when he is most needed.”
Yet Zardari is soldiering on. Today in France, the former husband and legacy-bearer of assassinated Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto said that the international community and Pakistan are “losing the war against the Taliban … because we have lost the battle for hearts and minds." In a statement prior to a visit with the French Foreign Ministry and ahead of his British visit, Zardari added, "It is unfortunate that certain individuals continue to express doubts and fears about our determination to fight militants to the end…. Such fears will only weaken the international effort to fight militants and extremists."
Supporters of the visit say it is important for Zardari to mend fences with Cameron, bring home some aid (Britain today pledged nearly $10 million in flood assistance), and show that he is independent and not controlled by the whims of the Pakistani generals.
Sources in Pakistan note local media have been unwilling to see the benefits of the trip, originally planned as a political coming-out party for Zardari’s son and as a chance to meet the sizable British Pakistani community and its leaders.
"Zardari is more effective than he's being given credit for," says a Pakistani analyst in Washington.
Cameron has softened but not backed down from what is now being called a diplomatic gaffe in the July 28 speech he made in Bangalore, saying, "We want to see a strong, stable and democratic Pakistan, but we cannot tolerate in any sense export of terrorism, whether to India, Afghanistan or anywhere in the world."
Nick Whitney of the European Council of Foreign Relations in London argues that “Cameron was absolutely right to point out the terrorism aspects of Pakistan. When the two meet, Zardari will be privately saying that Cameron needs to understand, that it takes time, that dealing with extremists is difficult, we are doing everything we can, and please continue the aid. Cameron will say, 'please try harder.' My view is that the Pakistan government is riding the tiger of Islamic militancy, and it is difficult to get off a tiger when you are riding one.”