President Asif Ali Zardari returned to Pakistan as the Supreme Court opened hearings to determine whether he asked the U.S. in May to intervene against a possible army coup, an account that has widened a rift between civilian and military leaders.
The court’s probe into a memo seeking U.S. help was requested by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and has been backed by army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. It threatens Zardari’s tenure as he struggles to revive an economy hampered by the country’s worst-ever energy shortages and by militant violence, said analysts including Imtiaz Gul, chairman of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security.
“The memo has practically unified the Supreme Court, Sharif and the army,” Gul said in a phone interview Dec. 16. “They are all against him. This is the most serious challenge to Zardari’s position so far.”
A deepening of political instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan may complicate plans by President Barack Obama to withdraw troops from neighboring Afghanistan and U.S. efforts to repair ties with Pakistani authorities after a year of confrontations, including a Nov. 25 clash on the Afghan border that killed 24 Pakistani troops. Pakistan’s army has ruled the country for more than half of its 64 years, and dominates foreign and security policies during periods of civilian rule.
Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz says he helped Zardari’s appointed ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, send a memo asking for U.S. pressure against Pakistan’s army as it stood humiliated for failing to detect the May 2 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Ijaz, Kayani and Pakistan’s military intelligence chief, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, all submitted briefs to the Supreme Court last week.
The submissions “tend to confirm that a major political power struggle is in progress between the Pakistan army leadership and the elected civilian government,” wrote John McCreary, a retired U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, in a Dec. 16 e-mail. “The army is attempting to make the Supreme Court of Pakistan its ally” against Zardari, McCreary said.
Haqqani, who was dismissed over the memo, and the government deny involvement. Haqqani served as a Zardari adviser and in the 1990s as spokesman to his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Haqqani’s wife, Farahnaz Ispahani, is a spokeswoman for Zardari.
The legal challenge to Zardari’s more than three-year rule comes amid uncertainty over his health following treatment in Dubai for what officials have called a previously diagnosed cardiovascular condition.
Zardari returned to Pakistan from Dubai today, his spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, said. The benchmark Karachi Stock Exchange 100 Index rose 0.9 percent at 11:15 a.m. local time.
The court’s probe will be led by Chief Justice Muhammad Iftikhar Chaudhry, who has challenged both Zardari and the previous president, army General Pervez Musharraf. Chaudhry last year ordered the revival of corruption investigations against Zardari and 8,000 officials, and in 2007 he confronted Musharraf in a dispute that led to the general’s ouster from power.
In testimonies presented to the court, Kayani and Pasha said they found Ijaz’s evidence credible. They called for a probe into an affair that Kayani said had sought to lower the morale of the military, according to Dawn newspaper.
The government challenged the court’s jurisdiction on grounds that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has ordered a parliamentary investigation, Dawn reported, citing court submissions. Zardari didn’t deliver a deposition.
Zardari spokesman Babar said Dec. 17 he wouldn’t discuss the case as it is before the courts. Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas didn’t return calls.
Former U.S. national security adviser General James Jones, who says he delivered Ijaz’s memo to Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had no reason to believe Haqqani was involved and that he didn’t find the note credible, Associated Press said Dec. 17.
Tension with the U.S., Pakistan’s largest aid provider, and political turmoil have undermined investor confidence in the economy and caused the rupee to drop to a record low against the dollar Dec. 9, Sayem Ali, an economist at Standard Chartered in Karachi, said.
Policy makers are aiming to boost growth from 2.4 percent in the year ended June 30, one of Pakistan’s lowest expansions in a decade. Foreign direct investment fell 28 percent in the four months through October from a year earlier.
Last month’s airstrike at the Afghan frontier that killed Pakistani troops soured ties with the U.S. further. Pakistan closed border crossings to trucks carrying supplies for American forces in Afghanistan and ordered the U.S. to vacate an airbase used for Predator drone missions.
“A prolonged confrontation between the military and civilian leadership will complicate things for the U.S.,” said Rashid Khan, a professor of international relations at the University of Sargodha. “As they get closer to an end game in Afghanistan, Western allies want Pakistan to play an active role in bringing militants” into talks.
Gilani tried to dispel the impression that his government and the army are set on a collision course after meeting Kayani Dec. 16.
“The government of Pakistan and its institutions remain committed to their constitutional roles and obligations to a democratic and prosperous future for Pakistan,” Gilani’s office said in a statement.
“This memo case is a conspiracy against the elected government and the parliament,” Gilani said in a televised address in the Senate Dec. 14. “I can’t guarantee that this system will survive if we are ousted through undemocratic means. In this case, you all have to pack up and go.”
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