Who's Actually Running Pakistan?

This week, All Things Considered is examining the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with Christine Fair, assistant professor of security studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, about who's actually running Pakistan now.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

When CIA Chief Leon Panetta visited Pakistan a couple of weeks ago, he sat down for separate meetings with the country's president, the prime minister, and the head of the army. That may speak to the importance Washington ascribes to relations with Islamabad, though separate meetings may also offer a window into the competing power centers in Pakistan's complicated political landscape.

This week we're looking at the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, and today we're going to focus on the key players in Pakistan, who is actually running the country. We've asked Christine Fair to help us with that. She teaches Security Studies at Georgetown University, and let's start with the president: Asif Ali Zardari. Not a popular president these days.

Professor CHRISTINE FAIR (Assistant Professor of Security Studies, Georgetown University): Indeed, he is not. He is known as Mr. Ten Percent. Some would say Mr. 110 percent.

KELLY: Mr. Ten Percent because of the kickbacks that he's seemed to have taken.

Prof. FAIR: Extreme corruption. And in fact, it's alleged to continue. I mean, if you want to get a large infrastructure contract in Pakistan, it is alleged that Mr. Zardari will take a negotiation fee.

KELLY: And the widespread perception is that he ascended to the presidency because - out of sympathy for his wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated. How much power does he actually wield as president, now, of Pakistan?

Prof. FAIR: I mean, he wields very little. His powers were largely stripped after the passage of the 18th amendment, which took many of the powers that president Musharraf arrogated to the position of the president, and redistributed them back to the prime minister. So, he is constitutionally weakened, but he is also very problematic domestically, because he is absolutely despised and loathed. And equally importantly, he's failed to deal with corruption for obvious reasons. And he is really not perceived to have managed very effectively the crises of the floods and the rehabilitation and reconstruction following the Pakistan Army's counterinsurgency operations in Swat and elsewhere.

KELLY: There are other civilian leaders, of course, the prime minister - but I want to turn to this grueling perception that it is in fact the head of the army who is running the show in Pakistan. The head of the army these days is General Ashfaq Kayani. What can you tell us about him?

Prof. FAIR: Well, Kayani is an interesting fellow. Interestingly enough, the United States is always besotten by the newest chief of army staff. They're convinced that he's a democrat, that he means well, all of these things. But the reality is he's a much more complicated figure.

He was the director of the ISI, which is the all-important intelligence agency, during the time when Pakistan began its u-turn, on its u-turn against the Taliban. So, it's interesting that we herald him now as the savior of Pakistan in some measure, when it was his policies when he was the ISI chief that brought about some of the most precipitous conflicts in U.S.-Pakistan relations over Afghanistan.

KELLY: Among the army's sources of power are - they control the nuclear weapons program. They also control the powerful spy apparatus: the ISI. That brings us to another player: General Pasha. Who's he?

Prof. FAIR: He is the director general of the ISI. He's a very soft-spoken fellow. He also enjoys very good relations, or at least at first blush, among a variety of Americans that go there.

It's interesting that the United States claims to want a democratic Pakistan, but whenever there's a congressional delegation that goes to Pakistan, they don't meet their counterparts in the National Assembly. They all want to meet General Kayani and General Pasha, because they understand that's where the power lies. What Pakistan is doing vis-a-vis the terrorist groups that target India as well as us, like Lashkar-e-Taiba, what Pakistan is doing vis-a-vis the Afghan Taliban, those policies are all going to be negotiated by General Kayani and General Pasha.

KELLY: Big picture then: Who should Washington be dealing with in trying to do business with Pakistan?

Prof. FAIR: Look. This is perhaps one of the toughest questions. It will be very difficult for the U.S. to achieve its objectives vis-a-vis terrorism and nuclear proliferation by alienating the army. But in some sense, that's exactly what it has to do if it wants to secure a future for Pakistan that is democratic and where the civilians have control over the military, not the military having control over the civilians.

KELLY: Thank you very much.

Prof. FAIR: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Professor Christine Fair of Georgetown University, helping us sort through the key players in Pakistan. Tomorrow, a conversation about anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and why it runs so high.

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