Viewing cable 08ISLAMABAD405, AMBASSADOR’S CONDOLENCE CALL ON ASIF ZARDARI
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|08ISLAMABAD405||2008-01-28 09:09||2010-11-30 21:09||CONFIDENTIAL||Embassy Islamabad|
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Monday, 28 January 2008, 09:30 C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 ISLAMABAD 000405 SIPDIS SIPDIS EO 12958 DECL: 01/28/2018 TAGS PREL, PGOV, PTER, PK SUBJECT: AMBASSADOR’S CONDOLENCE CALL ON ASIF ZARDARI Classified By: Anne W. Patterson, for reasons 1.4 (b)(d) 1, (C) Summary. During an hour and a half conversation with Ambassador on January 25, Pakistan People’s Party Co-Chairman Asif Zardari called for deployment of the Army to prevent fraud on election day, asked for a UN investigation into Benazir Bhutto’s assassination to identify the forces behind the attack, said he would create a national unity government if his party was elected, shared his concerns about spreading talibanization, voiced support for privatization and continued economic growth, indicated he would run for the National Assembly in a by-election and said that the PPP had not yet chosen a candidate for Prime Minister. He sought U.S. blessing for his leadership. Although Zardari delivered what he knew his audience wanted to hear, overall he demonstrated more poise and competence than we had expected. End Summary. ¶2. (C) Ambassador and Polcouns January 25 paid a condolence and introductory call on Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto and Co-Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The meeting at Bilawal House in Karachi lasted an hour and a half. Roukhsana Bangash took notes for Zardari; PPP Sindhi President Nisar Ahmad Khuro also attended the meeting. Wearing a western blazer and slacks, Zardari appeared relaxed and focused through a wide-ranging discussion, referring only once to his prepared notes. ¶3. (C) Ambassador expressed condolences over the death of Benazir Bhutto and recounted how she had first met Bhutto just a few months ago in the same room. She asked about the Bhutto children, and Zardari said that Bilawal, in particular, was being besieged by well-meaning but stressful requests to attend memorials or speak to the press. Bilawal wanted to come home for his school holidays, but Zardari was still considering what was best. He had just visited the daughters in Dubai. Zardari himself planned to live at least part time in Lahore after the mourning period was completed. ¶4. (C) Zardari opened his remarks by saying that the U.S. is “our safety blanket” and recounted how Benazir had returned despite the threats against her because of support and “clearance” from the U.S. However, Zardari quickly moved on to the PPP succession. He shared a photocopy of a one-page handwritten will from Benazir in which she bequeathed the party to him. This document, Zardari said, would be published in an upcoming book authored by Benazir. Zardari said that for symbolic reasons he passed the PPP leadership to his son, Bilawal. Although Bilawal was only 19, Zardari noted that Benazir had taken over the PPP when she was only 22 years old. Benazir’s enemies, he said, do not understand that she is now even stronger as a martyr. Taliban Threat -------------- ¶5. (C) The challenge today, said Zardari, was to convert Benazir’s energy and the sympathy from her death into a positive outcome for Pakistan. He warned that what happens in Pakistan has a spillover effect in Afghanistan, Iran, and India. Pakistan has a population of 175 million people that is growing at 3-4% per year, so the effect of talibanization here can have a profound impact on the entire region. ¶6. (C) According to Zardari, there was no such thing as a “moderate Taliban” which had warped the concept of Islam. Zardari expressed concern about the increasing level of Saudi money even in Sindh and said that mosques and madrassas had become a “cottage industry” in Pakistan. It was important to reverse the impact of former President General Zia’s Islamization, and he noted that in helping the mujahideen fight the Soviets we had “taught people to fish” and were now reaping the consequences. Ambassador noted that Benazir, more than most Pakistani politicians, had understood the creeping threat of extremism. That threat was now exhibiting itself, not only in the tribal areas, but in the settled areas of Swat and through suicide bombings around the country. Planning to Run --------------- ¶7. (C) Zardari agreed, saying that democracy was the way ISLAMABAD 00000405 002 OF 004 forward. He had opposed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s announcement (twice) of a boycott and had not launched a FIR (first incident report) against the government over Benazir’s death. Pakistan did not need any more chaos. Zardari said he would support PPP participation even if the party was weak or he was not in parliament. Zardari volunteered that the PPP had not yet chosen any candidate for Prime Minister and said it was premature at this stage. He noted that his sister is a member of the National Assembly from Nawabshah, and said she could give up her seat within two months so that he could contest it. Zardari was struggling, however, with how to explain to PPP rank and file the idea of continuing to work with a superpower which supported Musharraf. He was trying to convince his party that the U.S. supported democracy. ¶8. (C) Ambassador responded that the U.S. most definitely is supporting the democratic process in Pakistan and believes that, as the broadest based party in Pakistan, the PPP must be part of that process. We were working to make the elections as free and fair as possible. It did not go unnoticed in Washington that Zardari had agreed to a delay in elections and publicly had spoken out against violence. Call in the Army ---------------- ¶9. (C) In response, Zardari ticked off the litany of PPP complaints about the election process: the intelligence agencies were going to rig the voting; the caretaker government was a sham and the former Musharraf government effectively was still in place at the national and provincial levels; PPP workers were being falsely arrested on charges connected to the post-assassination riots in Sindh; and the Chief Election Commissioner was weak and took his power from a Supreme Court that has now been hand-picked by Musharraf. ¶10. (C) What was needed, Zardari believed, was to have the Pakistan Army deployed at all voting places on election day to supervise the process. He was appealing to Chief of Army Staff General Kayani, Prime Minister Soomro and the Election Commission to put a solider in every polling booth on election day. Ambassador cautioned that in a recent meeting with CENTCOM Commander Admiral Fallon, General Kayani had made it clear that the Army wanted to stay out of politics. Zardari responded “out of politics, yes but not out of security for the process.” There was precedent from former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s era to deploy the Army. It was needed to stop intimidation of voters by the local gangs belonging to some ruling party elites (he cited the Chaudhrys in the Punjab). Zardari said that the ruling party controls the police and could easily throw out the poll watchers so the process can be rigged. ¶11. (C) Noting that many western officials would see deployment of the Army as a negative development, Ambassador pressed Zardari on this point. He confirmed that the PPP believed the Army was a national institution that could be counted upon to preserve security and prevent electoral fraud. However, Zardari admitted that he was “scared” that the closer he gets to General Kayani, the weaker Kayani will become. Bhutto Investigation -------------------- ¶12. (C) Zardari confirmed that PPP officials were in the U.S. to push for a UN investigation of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. He was not interested so much in who the sniper was or exactly how Benazir was killed. This was not as important as finding out who financed the killing, who were the “hands behind” it. Zardari had met with Scotland Yard as a courtesy, and the PPP provided some assistance, but the Scotland Yard mandate did not extend to what the PPP wanted to know. Ambassador said that we believed Baitullah Mehsud was responsible; Zardari dismissed this by saying that Mehsud was “just a pawn” in the process. ¶13. (C) Ambassador noted that our experience with the Hariri investigation was not promising; after three and a half years and great expense, there was still no final verdict. Moreover, it would still require an investigative body, and the UN had to pull together a disparate group of ISLAMABAD 00000405 003 OF 004 law enforcement officials and prosecutors to actually conduct the investigation. We believed it was important to hear the results of the Scotland Yard investigation before considering any other inquiries. Post-Election Alliances ----------------------- ¶14. (C) In response to Ambassador’s question, Zardari said he could work with the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) as “they were not all bad.” He cited former Foreign Minister Kasuri as an example of someone with whom he could interact. The Chaudhrys continued to issue false campaign statements and unnecessarily stir up Sindhi-Punjabi emotions, but Zardari insisted he had been careful “not to name names” or close out options. He continued to talk to National Security Advisor Tariq Aziz and confirmed that Aziz wants them to meet in Islamabad. Zardari also confirmed meeting with ISI Director General Taj. ¶15. (C) As for other party politicians, Zardari described Nawaz Sharif as a shy man. He had welcomed Nawaz’s condolence visit to Sindh, although he recounted that Nawaz had put him in jail on false charges. Still, given the history of Zulfakir Bhutto’s death, the PPP doesn’t “condemn or hang former prime ministers.” Zardari dismissed the electoral prospects of Fazlur Rehman, leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, by saying Fazlur was afraid for his life, hiding out on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Zardari questioned whether the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) really had the support of more than 20% of Karachi, but said that it ruled through gerrymandering of districts. The same was true of the PML’s support in Punjab. Zardari said he didn’t like the aggressive side of MQM but could work with the party and wanted to form a “national unity” government to heal the country. Economic Policy --------------- ¶16. (C) Zardari lamented that, despite economic growth, Musharraf had wasted an opportunity to improve social conditions in Pakistan. The country had received $62 billion in international assistance since September 11, 2001, but it wasn’t clear what the government had done with the money. There was a $6 billion shortfall, and poverty had increased. ¶17. (C) Ambassador said that we shared the same concern. In particular, funds we provided for the military were not reaching the forces who needed them to fight extremism. She noted that there was some concern that PPP’s traditionally populist ideas might undermine sound economic policy. Zardari responded that he supported increased privatization and economic expansion to build the middle class. The PPP, he insisted, had evolved beyond the days of Zulfakir Bhutto’s slogans to give the people “roti, kapra, makan” (bread, clothing, shelter). Request for Endorsement ----------------------- ¶18. (C) In closing, Zardari said flatly “I am not Benazir, and I know it. The people respect me only because I spent eleven years in prison.” Therefore, “I need help, especially from the U.S.” to continue her legacy. Ambassador responded that we continued to support the PPP and our shared struggle against extremism and in favor of the democratic process in Pakistan. Comment ------- ¶19. (C) Zardari had prepared for this meeting and knew what his audience wanted to hear. Nevertheless, he was calm, articulate and demonstrated a good grasp of issues and politics. Missing was the egotism and emotional bombast that we expected. He referred to conspiracy theories far less than Benazir had done and appears ready to deal with a variety of political actors in a practical way. Zardari’s decision to name his son as head of the party was a savvy recognition of his own negatives, and it demonstrated a deliberate willingness to continue exploiting the Bhutto name. By sharing a copy of what purportedly was Benazir’s ISLAMABAD 00000405 004 OF 004 will (it has not been shared with the public despite numerous media requests), Zardari appeared to be trying to convince us that Benazir indeed had anointed him as her successor. ¶20. (C) Zardari seemingly wants to be the PPP’s candidate for Prime Minister, with the USG blessing. Law is not necessarily an obstacle to politics in Pakistan; however, the law requires that candidates have a university degree to run for office, and the Election Commission has disqualified the Sharif brothers (and other candidates) for being convicted/accused of crimes. Zardari has no university degree and spent eleven years in prison on various charges ranging from corruption and extortion to murder. He benefited from the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) that gave Benazir and others immunity from prosecution, but the NRO is due to expire on February 4. In deciding whether to extend the NRO, Musharraf thus has leverage over Zardari, his candidate eligibility, and his possible role in a future government. ¶21. Within PPP party circles, there is still a great deal of suspicion and dislike of Zardari. For now, most PPP members are lining up behind him as party leader. The focus of infighting has been over who, other than Zardari, will be the PPP candidate for Prime Minister. If Zardari presses his own candidacy, he will place further strains on a party that already is showing signs of fracture. As for running in his sister’s constituency, it is not clear if the government will schedule by-elections until several months (possibly not before June) after the February 18 elections. At a minimum, it still appears that the PPP will need another candidate for Prime Minister if and until Zardari can sort out his eligibility. ¶22. (C) The government already has announced that the Army will be stationed at “sensitive” polling places to maintain law and order on election day. A wholesale deployment of the Army designed to prevent vote rigging by the Musharraf government, however, could very much politicize the Army in a way that General Kayani has been seeking to avoid. It would also place additional duties on forces increasingly overstretched in dealing with extremist militants in and around the tribal areas. Politically, however, the call for Army deployment is a clever move that puts the government in a no-win position, especially if/when election-day violence breaks out. PATTERSON