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‘Zardari-Haqqani tapes against Army revealed’

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ISLAMABAD: A military spy agency recorded a conversation between President Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan’s Ambassador in US Husain Haqqani discussing the Kerry Lugar Bill and the recordings captured the two discussing how to strengthen democratic institutions in Pakistan.

This has been disclosed in a report published in McClatchy, the US newspaper group owned by The Miami Herald. The recording was disclosed by military sources without giving any names but the implication was that the two were discussing how to weaken the hold of the military in Pakistani policies.

Military officials believe that secretly taped conversations between President Asif Zardari and his ambassador in Washington prove that it was at Zardari’s insistence that a $1.5 billion US aid package passed by Congress in September contained several provisions that angered the Pakistani military. The military publicly protested the aid package last month.

The report said: “Suspicions by Pakistan’s powerful Army that the country’s civilian leadership is growing too close to the United States are fueling a political crisis that analysts here believe threatens the survival of the government and could divert attention from the battle against the extremists.

“The reaction (from the military) was not so much to what was in the bill but to the thought that the government was trying to create a civilian-to-civilian dialogue (with Washington),” said a senior Pakistani official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Army ruled Pakistan for the most part of its existence, with civilian rule returning only last year. Now the military is responding by pressing a confrontation with Zardari over the expiration of a legal amnesty for politicians that benefited many members of Zardari’s government, including the president himself and his ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani.

The amnesty, known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), wiped away longstanding charges against the politicians and bureaucrats who served between 1986 and 1999. But the Supreme Court ruled that the measure, which was decreed in October 2007 by then President Pervez Musharraf, was unconstitutional, and it would come to an end on Saturday.

That will expose serving ministers and senior aides to prosecution over cases that range from corruption to murder – including Zardari, who was charged with taking kickbacks when his wife, the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, served as the country’s prime minister.

Most here argue that Zardari, who is head of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, will still have legal immunity as president. But analysts believe the military is behind a campaign to oust Zardari and, with the help of sympathetic media and opposition politicians, is using the end of the amnesty as an opportunity to strike. While dislodging the president will be tough, it is possible that he’ll be forced to transfer most of his powers to the prime minister through a constitutional amendment.

Suspicions in the president’s camp about an attempt to isolate him were heightened when the Law Ministry released a list of amnesty beneficiaries that featured those close to the president, including his top aide and several cabinet ministers, but none of the allies of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.

At the center of the civil-military conflict is the relationship between Zardari’s government and Washington, with the Pakistani Army resentful of the close ties and the government’s agreement with some US security policies that don’t fit with the military’s view.

The political confrontation came to the fore with the passage of the $1.5 billion US aid package, which insisted on civilian control of the armed forces and threatened to cut off assistance if there were a coup. The legislation also demanded that Pakistan must crack down on extremist groups that were previously considered close to the army.

Even when there have been civilian governments in Islamabad, the military has viewed sensitive foreign and security policies as its purview. In particular, the military jealously guards its role in relations with India, Afghanistan and the United States, as well as the policy toward the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Zardari, however, has intruded in all those areas since taking office. He’s reached out to traditional enemy India, improved relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai – usually seen in Pakistan as dangerously close to India – and agreed with the US that Pakistan must eliminate extremist groups on its soil – the same militants that the military previously used to fight proxy wars in India and Afghanistan.

Zardari also unsuccessfully tried to place the main military spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, under civilian control, and he offered a “no first use” policy on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to India.

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