Can Zardari fill the void for US after Musharraf?

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Islamabad, Aug 23 : The US is searching for a new ally in Islamabad whom it can bank upon, after former president Pervez Musharraf has gone off the political scene there. Musharraf stood as a strong and convenient one-stop shopping window for Washington for almost nine years while being flexible enough to adjust to almost every demand.

The Bush administration relied on him for military support to suppress the Taliban in the tribal regions, and for intelligence in rounding up people suspected of belonging to Al Qaeda. In the end, it did not reap much of what it wanted. But, Musharraf, the seemingly amenable autocrat, offered Washington a sense of leverage.

Now, with Musharraf out of power, recent visitors to the US Embassy here say American officials have been at a loss - one used the word "struggling" - to figure out who America should throw its weight behind, reported the New York Times.

To fill the void, three names appear before the US - PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. Among the three, Zardari, who is all set to don the mantle of President of Pakistan, seems to be the best choice

Nawaz Sharif, who enjoyed a good relationship with President Clinton when he was prime minister in the 1990s, is regarded 'suspiciously' by Washington policy makers as being "too close to conservative Islamic forces in Pakistan".

The fact that Sharif is riding a tide of popularity because of his staunch anti-Musharraf stance does not impress the Bush administration, said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As President, Zardari could end up being one of the most powerful figures Pakistan has ever seen. He would no doubt continue to effectively control the prime minister. The big question is whether as President the PPP Co-chairman would hold the ultimate power that Musharraf enjoyed -- the ability under a constitutional amendment to dissolve the Parliament. The coalition has pledged to abolish that provision. But, if Zardari manages to keep that power, the US could be back to its one-stop shopping window, though with a different character behind the counter, added the paper.

Zardari spent more than eight years in jail on corruption charges, but he was never convicted and even now maintains that they amounted to a vendetta by his political enemies. The charges were dropped, finally, as part of an amnesty accord with Musharraf when he and his wife Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan.

According to the paper, that background makes Zardari a "divisive figure" in Pakistani politics, even as he moves steadily toward sewing up the presidency. But, after Gilani's weak performance in Washington, Bush administration officials may be tilting toward Zardari as their likely alternative ally.

Meanwhile, the political sniping between the PPP and the PML-N has heightened jitters among American officials that no one is actually in charge as the Taliban insurgency gains steam. The death toll from the worst of the Taliban's suicide bombings, outside a munitions factory on Thursday, rose to 78, officials said, with 103 wounded. Moreover, doubts are growing among American officials over the level of cooperation they can expect from the new Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, a former head of intelligence who took over the post from Musharraf last November.

After glowing initial reviews by the Americans, General Kayani has appeared less interested in how to deal with the Taliban than with the sagging morale of his under-trained, under-equipped troops. "In my view they won't do aggressive counterinsurgency because they can't," said Christine Fair, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, of the Pakistani Army.

To the surprise of many here, the civilian with the trump card, then, may be Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, who took up the mantle of her party after she was assassinated in December. Zardari did not run for election, and lacks ample experience in government, but he manages the largest bloc in Parliament from behind the scenes. He is the power behind Gilani, making day-to-day decisions over government policy and appointments to senior positions that have included friends who have spent time in jail on corruption charges, added the US daily.

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