Did he, or didn’t he?
All over Pakistan, people are asking whether Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari approved a memo asking for Washington’s help in reining in the country’s powerful military.
The answer could play a role in whether Zardari, already deeply unpopular with both the public and the military, stays in power.
The scandal scorching the airwaves in Pakistani cities and towns now has a name — Memogate — and it is sparking talk of early elections. At the center of it all is Pakistani American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, who says a senior Pakistani diplomat asked him to convey a letter to Washington seeking its help in preventing a military takeover of Zardari’s administration.
In return, the letter stated, the Zardari government would eliminate a wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, or ISI, that maintains links with Afghan insurgent groups, and would give U.S. troops “a green light” to root out Afghan militants hiding out in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Ijaz says Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, asked him to be the intermediary and that Zardari had endorsed the memo. The explosive allegations prompted Haqqani to offer his resignation as a way of defusing the controversy, though he denies either writing the memo or asking Ijaz to pass it on to Washington.
Unless Haqqani can show that the memo was fabricated, he could be ousted from his post. But analysts say the crisis also casts a shadow on Zardari, who has been criticized by many Pakistanis for his closeness to the American government, which they mistrust, as well as his failure to solve the country’s myriad economic and infrastructure ills.
“It might be a game-changer in the political arena, with the military concluding there’s no way it can trust the Zardari government,” said Pakistani columnist and legal expert Babar Sattar. “If the military isn’t willing to let this go, it could reduce the term of this government. That might be the only resolution: to hold early elections.”
If genuine, the memo sheds a harsh light on the deep rifts between Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders. Although Zardari is president, the military, led by army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, holds ultimate power in Pakistan, as it has for most of the country’s 64-year history. The military thinks Zardari is too acquiescent to Washington’s demands.
The memo purportedly was drafted a week after U.S. commandos killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during a secret nighttime raid on his compound in the Pakistani military city of Abbottabad, about a two-hour drive from the capital. It portrays a civilian government convinced that the country’s military leaders were planning a coup against Zardari.
The rationale, Ijaz said in an Oct. 10 op-ed piece in the Financial Times newspaper, was that the military was being heavily criticized by the public and the media for allowing the raid to occur, and needed to make Zardari a scapegoat to deflect blame.
“Request your direct intervention in conveying a strong, urgent and direct message to Gen. Kayani that delivers Washington’s demand for him and [ISI chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja] Pasha to end their brinkmanship aimed at bringing down the civilian apparatus,” stated the memo, which was delivered to the then-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen. The memo was published on the website of Foreign Policy magazine and by the Pakistani newspaper the News.
“If true, it shows that the civilian government really panicked,” said security analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general. “It’s extraordinary that they would get so nervous that they would write all this. It shows the deep divide between the civilian leadership and the military.
“If it’s a phony memo, it would recoil back at the [military].”
If the military was behind such a move, it could be aimed at discrediting or weakening Zardari’s government.
“The more likely, but far from certain, scenario? The boys are up to their tricks again,” Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn, an English-language Pakistani newspaper, wrote Friday, referring to the military.
To back up his claims, Ijaz gave the News email that he says he and Haqqani exchanged at the time the memo was drafted and later conveyed to Mullen. On May 10, after the memo was delivered to Mullen, Ijaz allegedly emailed Haqqani, saying, “Ball is in play now — make sure you have protected your flanks.”