Image: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari
Remo Casilli  /  Reuters file
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari could face a legal assault, first on his aides, then on him, over crimes alleged to have occurred before he took office.
By Senior investigative producer
NBC News
updated 11/16/2009 7:32:31 AM ET 2009-11-16T12:32:31

Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders are tangling in a series of political confrontations that could lead to a constitutional crisis or worse after the New Year, officials in both Islamabad and Washington tell NBC News.

With the tenor and volume of debate rising over America’s commitment to Afghanistan, that struggle is complicating U.S. strategy to stabilize the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

It's not only that dozens are dying every week in suicide bombings or that there are concerns that the Pakistani military will not be able to hold the territory it has won in hard-fought battles in South Waziristan. The more profound issue, say Pakistani and U.S. officials, is the fate of President Asif Ali Zardari, who is engaged in a seemingly never-ending battles with the country’s powerful military and intelligence establishments.

In recent weeks, say officials, opponents of Zardari have begun raising the stakes, setting up what some are calling a “soft coup … a legislative coup” – an attempt to force Zardari out.

End to amnesty
On Nov. 2, legislators opposed to Zardari, along with the military and intelligence community, thwarted an attempt by his Pakistani People’s Party to hammer through an extension of the National Reconciliation Ordinance.

The innocuously named law, pushed through at the behest of the U.S. in 2007, froze criminal prosecutions against Zardari, his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, and their allies. Without the NRO, Bhutto would not have returned to run for president. Not long after she did return, she was assassinated, and her husband succeeded her as head of the PPP, winning the presidential election last year. Parliament has until Nov. 28 to renew the NRO. But on Nov. 2, other parties in the PPP-led coalition, along with the parliamentary opposition and the military, thwarted Zardari. Analysts in Pakistan and the U.S. say there is no chance the NRO will be renewed by the deadline, and in fact, Prime Minister Yusef Reza Gilani said this week it’s dead.

As a result, say Pakistani officials, several cases involving Zardari cronies — some of them high-ranking officials — are likely to move forward. One Pakistani official familiar with all the parties said that while he can’t see the president stepping down, he expects a constitutional crisis early in the year, as the prosecutors close in first on his aides, then him. “Nothing before (next year), but almost certainly by then,” said the official.

One potential issue is whether Zardari has presidential immunity for any crimes committed before he was elected. He may have it for his time in office, but it’s uncertain that he does for any crimes alleged before he assumed office.

Deep rift in power structure
U.S. officials are said to be alarmed by the development. It cannot have come as a surprise, however.

The top of the Pakistani power structure is riven by deep, personal and professional animosity between military and civilian leaders. As one senior Pakistani official reports, Zardari and Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani “hate each other” — and each is trying to ensure that other can’t threaten him, often against U.S. interests.

The stalemate over the NRO extension is just the latest move by the military. What Zardari will do to counter that is uncertain, but he is certainly trying to get help from his allies in the U.S. government.

Image: Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani
Warrick Page  /  Getty Images file
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of Pakistan's army, is said to be maneuvering to push out President Asif Ali Zardari.
The prospect of a military takeover — long an option in Pakistan — is overblown, say officials in both the government and the military. Kayani is indeed ambitious but he understands the consequences of a military takeover, particularly with regard to continued U.S. military aid, said one official.

“This government does not believe we are trying to be supportive,” said an officer in the Pakistani intelligence community. “There are no political ambitions in the army. The past relationship between the army and government … the previous experiences have been very bad … This government still does not believe that a transformation has occurred.”

“We want them to do their jobs, we want to do ours,” he concluded.

But does Kayani want to be a kingmaker? Under one scenario, he eschews a coup but instead maneuvers to have a “government of national unity,” populated with technocrats, replace Zardari.

Both fear Sharif
On the other side, Pakistani officials say Zardari understands the very real and dire consequences of firing Kayani. So there is a stalemate and no clear leadership. Both sides fear Zardari’s chief political rival, the charismatic but more religious Nawaz Sharif, and would band together to thwart any power play he might attempt. At least, that’s long been Zardari’s plan. (Sharif is banned from serving as head of government under a constitutional amendment pushed through by former President Pervez Musharraf. Zardari promised to remove the ban but hasn’t followed through.)

But the NRO stalemate, say officials in Pakistan and the United States, is just the latest in a string of crises. Only last month, there was the controversy over whether the U.S. had put onerous burdens on Pakistan in return for a $7.5 billion aid package.

TimelineWith Congress unhappy about reports that previous counterterrorism aid had been diverted to conventional forces and fearing that some of the money might be funneled to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development, the bill laid out restrictions and requirements on how the money was to be spent.

The military began a public relations campaign assailing the restrictions. The officer in the Pakistani intelligence community told NBC that clauses in the bill were believed to be “instrusive,” “derogatory” and a “legislative indictment – assumptions we’re not doing all we can against militants.”

So the military leaked the details of the U.S. objections. In a particularly telling choice of words, the intelligence officer said the leaks occurred because Kayani is, “in some ways, leading a political party. His public has to know why he does what he does.”

Not meant ‘to cause trouble’
The officer said it was not done “to cause trouble for government. It was to show rank and file (in the Pakistani military) that the army is taking a stand for what’s best for country, and to make clear these clauses we felt were detrimental to the long-term security of the country.”

Specifically, the officer as well as others in the Pakistani government friendly to the army said none of the three drafts of the U.S.-Pakistani agreement “were ever discussed with anyone in the Army or ISI" (Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence directorate).

Zardari’s people deny that. One official said Kayani was briefed “in full and in person” on the details of the bill and is playing the “babe in the woods” claiming to be blindsided for reasons that are unclear. He said that under Musharraf, who is also a former army chief, the previous aid bills had similar language and “no one cared.” This time, it’s a bigger deal because of the rift and lack of trust between the two leaders.

If that was the case, however, why didn’t Zardari leak the communications showing the military was briefed? asked one military official. Indeed, the military feels confident it will emerge as the survivor in all this, with Zardari’s popularity now measured in the teens in almost every Pakistani public opinion poll.

How does this all play out in terms of relations with the U.S.? Often, the Americans are caught in the middle.

Amid the dispute over the Kerry-Lugar bill on the aid package and who got briefed and when, the U.S. and Pakistani governments had to issue a “joint explanatory statement” that was attached to the legislation. In essence, it tried to assuage the military’s fears while renewing the U.S. commitment to “help strengthen the institutions of democratic governance.”

Seen as a victory for the military, the four-page statement was interspersed with underlined sentences that emphasized a hands-off approach regarding Pakistani national security. The key one: “The legislation does not seek in any way to compromise Pakistan’s sovereignty, impinge on Pakistan’s security interests or micromanage any aspect of Pakistani military or civilian operations.”

While the bill has passed the U.S. Congress, it now must be accepted by Pakistan’s parliament — and that is not a done deal, in spite of Pakistan’s dire economic straits. The reason: an increasingly virulent anti-Americanism that now reaches every level of Pakistani society, including the military.

“Americans may think General Kayani is pro-American,” said one senior Pakistani official. “He is not.”

The anti-Americanism is manifested particularly in Pakistani fears of abandonment. Pakistanis have seen this before: The U.S. denied all aid to Pakistan in 1992 after U.S. intelligence determined the Pakistani military had assembled nuclear weapons during a crisis the year before, violating the Pressler Amendment on aid to Pakistan. The experience left Pakistani leaders bitter – and, according to U.S. officials, paranoid.

Two recent stories being passed around Islamabad are indicative of the sentiment. Both are associated with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit with Kayani on Oct. 29 , one of several she was required to have, given Pakistan’s deeply divided government.

In one story, Kayani presented Clinton with “evidence” of a conspiracy involving the CIA, Israel’s Mossad and India’s intelligence agency, RAW. According to the story, the three agencies had been responsible for some of the terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds in Pakistani cities.

Interactive map: Conflict in PakistanIn the other, Kayani supposedly told Clinton that Pakistan was aware the U.S. has been talking to the Taliban through the good offices of Saudi King Abdullah and didn’t appreciate it. Indeed, Kayani did dispatch his ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, to Riyadh to meet the king.

The U.S. denies both stories.

There is also something else at work here. At their core, Pakistanis are angry, not just about the upheaval and violence that threatens civil society, or the inability of their government and their army to deal with it. They are angry because their rival, India, is now seen by the U.S. public as a land of opportunity, where even a “slumdog” can make his fortune, while their homeland is viewed as a basket case of political intrigue and intractable Islamic militancy.

Bottom line: The next few months are likely to produce even more grist for that belief, as winter closes in on the mountainous border regions of South Waziristan, bogging down the Pakistani military, amid increasing terrorist attacks and collapsing leadership.

“Until and unless Pakistan views security and stability as internal and not related to India or the United States, chaos and confusion will threaten it,” said a western security official. “Right now, the prognosis is not very good.”

Robert Windrem is an NBC News producer and research fellow at the NYU Center for Law and Security. Contributing to this report were NBC News’ Carol Grisanti from Islamabad and Amna Nawaz from Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

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