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Crises test Pakistani leadership

Not for the first time, Pakistan appears to be teetering on the edge with a government unable to cope.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Not for the first time, Pakistan appears to be teetering on the edge with a government unable to cope.

Floods are ravaging a country at war with al-Qaida and the Taliban. Riots, slayings and arson are gripping the largest city. Suggestions are flying that the intelligence agency is aiding Afghan insurgents.

The crises raise questions about a nation crucial to U.S. hopes of success in Afghanistan and to the global campaign against Islamist militancy.

Despite the recent headlines, few here see Pakistan in danger of collapse or being overrun by militants — a fear that had been expressed before the army fought back against insurgents advancing from their base in the Swat Valley early last year.

From its birth in 1947, Pakistan has been dogged by military coups, corrupt and inefficient leaders, natural disasters, assassinations and civil unrest. Through it all, Pakistan has not prospered — but it survives.

"There is plenty to be worried about, but also indications that when push comes to shove the state is able to respond," said Mosharraf Zaidi, an analyst and writer who has advised foreign governments on aid missions to Pakistan.

"The military has many weaknesses, but it has done a reasonable job in relief efforts. There have been gaps in the response. But this is a developing a country, right?"

The recent flooding came at a sensitive time for Pakistan, with Western doubts over its loyalty heightened by the leaking of U.S. military documents that strengthened suspicions the security establishment was supporting Afghan insurgents while receiving billions in Western aid.

With few easy choices, the United States has made it clear it intends to stick with Pakistan. Indeed, it has used the floods to demonstrate its commitment to the country, rushing emergency assistance and dispatching helicopters to ferry the goods.

The Pakistani government's response to the floods has been sharply criticized at home, especially since President Asif Ali Zardari departed for a European tour. With so many Pakistanis suffering, the trip has left the already weak and unpopular leader even more vulnerable politically.

The flooding was triggered by what meteorologists said were "once-in-a-century" rains. The worst affected area is the northwest, a stronghold for Islamist militants. Parts of the northwest have seen army offensives over the last two years.

Unless the people are helped quickly and the region is rebuilt, anger at the government could translate into support for the militants. At least one charity with suspected links to a militant outfit has established relief camps there.

The extremism threat was highlighted by a suicide bombing in the main northwestern town of Peshawar on Wednesday. The bomber killed the head of the Frontier Constabulary, a paramilitary force in the northwest at the forefront of the terror fight.

With authorities concentrating on flood relief, some officials have expressed concern that militants could regroup.

The city of Karachi has seen militant violence and is rumored to be a hiding place for top Taliban and al-Qaida fighters. It has also been plagued by regular bouts of political and ethnic bloodletting since the 1980s, though it has been calmer in recent years.

The latest violence erupted after the assassination of a leading member of the city's ruling party. More than 70 people have been killed in revenge attacks since then, paralyzing parts of the city of 16 million people.

While serious, the unrest does not yet pose an immediate threat to the stability of the country. Although the U.S. is unpopular, there is little public support for the hardline Islamist rule espoused by the Taliban and their allies. Their small movement has been unable to control any Pakistani territory beyond the northwest, home to only about 20 million of the country's 175 million people.

Zardari's political party has a solid majority in parliament, but the storm of criticism over the handling of the floods can only add to calls for early elections. That the army — which has ruled the country for close to half of its 63 years — is playing such a leading role is also not going unnoticed.

Zardari's aides say the prime minister and the Cabinet are in charge and that he has important state business in France and Britain. But that has done nothing to stop political opponents, newspaper columnists and ordinary Pakistanis from piling on scorn.

His decision to visit a family-owned 16th-century chateau in Normandy, France, when so many Pakistanis are homeless has triggered particular anger.

"Zardari visits French chateau as floods rage," read a headline in the anti-government daily The News, next to a picture of his helicopter touching down in the gardens of the chateau, set among hills and trees.

"Just when the president was thought by many in Pakistan to have secured his position, and to have matured a bit, he goes and blows it," wrote Ayaz Amir, a respected parliamentarian in a newspaper column Friday. "Any fool could have told the president not to visit his chateau because it was bound to draw fire. But he just couldn't resist it."

The revelations by online whistle-blower site WikiLeak have renewed focus on Pakistan's powerful military establishment and its long-suspected links with Afghan insurgents. Despite the civilian government, foreign and defense policy still remain the almost exclusive domain of generals.

Analysts say Pakistan is maintaining links with powerful Afghan insurgent factions like the Haqqani network because it is hedging against a U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan and wants to ensure that the next regime is friendly to it — and hostile to India.

Washington is limited in what it can do to get Pakistan to crack down on the militants because it cannot afford to destabilize the country any more than it is already. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, is home to al-Qaida's leadership and allows U.S. and NATO to truck most of its non-lethal supplies to forces in Afghanistan through its territory.

Some observers say Washington now believes that Pakistan will not attack the Haqqani network and others sheltering in the northwest and is instead hoping its contacts with them may actually be useful in negotiating an end to the war — even the Haqqanis if they agree to break with al-Qaida.

"The Pakistan army has won this round tactically because they are now being looked at as the key brokers here that can deliver these groups into the mainstream," said Moeed Yusuf of the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace. "The United States is working with limited options and it realizes this."