US embassy cables: Pakistani army chief hints at unseating Zardari

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Thursday, 12 March 2009, 04:28
EO 12958 DECL: 08/04/2018
Classified By: Anne W. Patterson, for reasons 1.4 (b)(d)

1. (C) Summary. In a last-ditch effort to reduce tensions with the Sharif brothers ahead of the start of the lawyers’ march on March 12, President Zardari offered Pakistan Muslim League (PML) leader Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain the post of Senate leader if PML would form a government with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in Punjab but will do little to pacify Nawaz Sharif or the lawyers. Shujaat is considering the deal, which will be sealed by the March 12 vote in the Senate; it could end governor’s rule in Punjab–if Shujaat can keep the PML forward block in line. Other compromise efforts have failed, although the UK High Commission is probing for the various parties’ positions in advance of a possible HMG mediation effort. After seeing Interior Minister Malik and Awami National Party leader Asfundyar Wali Khan, Ambassador will see Shujaat March 11 and the Sharifs on March 12.

2. (C) Amid reports of possible targeted killings and Mumbai style attacks during the march, the GOP began arresting Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) members and some civil activists. Interior Minister Malik assured Ambassador he had no plans to arrest the Sharifs or key civil society leaders like Aitzaz Ahsan, but caveated this by saying he might have to arrest Imran Khan or others “who did not obey the law.” Lawyers and JI activists already have begun infiltrating Islamabad; if a significant number of demonstrators cannot enter the capital, we expect protests in multiple areas, especially in Punjab, beginning March 12. Accordingly, we are issuing a Warden Notice March 11.

3. (C) During Ambassador’s fourth meeting in a week with Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Kayani on March 10, he again hinted that he might, however reluctantly, have to persuade President Zardari to resign if the situation sharply deteriorates. He mentioned Asfundyar Wali Khan as a possible replacement. This would not be a formal coup but would leave in place the PPP government led by PM Gilani, thus avoiding elections that likely would bring Nawaz Sharif to power. We do not believe Army action is imminent. We do believe Kayani was laying down a clear marker so that, if he has to act, he can say he warned the U.S. in advance and gave us ample opportunities to pressure both sides to back down. Kayani is trying to leverage what he considers predominate U.S. influence over Zardari, instead of seeking a direct confrontation that could provoke an unhelpful civil-military clash.

4. (C) Two weeks ago, Zardari was staring at victory on all fronts; today, he recognizes he must compromise with the Sharifs and might well be looking over his shoulder at the Army. Even if the lawyers’ march fizzles–and it may–Nawaz retains the high moral ground in public opinion and can continue attacking a now weakened Zardari. We should encourage Zardari to continue efforts to ease tensions and ask the Saudis and the UAE to weigh in with their respective allies. This could be a protracted process. End Summary.



5. (C) There are three political scenarios in play as tensions between President Zardari and the Sharif brothers rise ahead of the start of the lawyers’ march on March 12: mediation/accommodation, which resolves the Sharifs’ disqualification from holding public office, ends governor’s rule in Punjab and addresses the judicial issue; confrontation, which leads to violence and possible Army intervention; and a fizzled march that sets the stage for continued conflict.



6. (C) On March 11, Awami National Party (ANP) leader Asfundyar Wali Khan described to Ambassador and Polcouns his

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mediation efforts with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam leader Fazlur Rehman over the past week. Zardari, he asserted, agreed to request a review of the Supreme Court decision disqualifying the Sharifs, said that after a positive outcome to that review Shahbaz Sharif would be reinstated as Chief Minister Punjab, and agreed to a conference to discuss restoring the judiciary. In return, Nawaz should delay the lawyers’ march.

7. (C) Nawaz reportedly agreed but then changed his mind and demanded reversal of the court decision, an end to governor’s rule in Punjab and reinstatement of the former Chief Justice. Under pressure, Nawaz relented and agreed to the judicial conference idea but offered only to ask the lawyers to consider postponing the march, and said all this had to be accomplished in a day. Asfundyar noted that it was impossible to demand a immediate review of a Court decision that had not been formally issued. He told Nawaz that he would win the next election and should just be patient; by pressing now, he threatened a political vacuum that would be filled by the Army. This time, warned Asfundyar, Nawaz might not be sent into a comfortable exile. Nawaz refused to budge.

8. (C) Asfundyar said that Zardari was surrounded by advisors who were not politicians, so he was not being encouraged to compromise; Nawaz’s chief advisor was Chaudhry Nisar who, with the Sharif brothers disqualified, stood the best chance of being the next PML-N Prime Minister. Nawaz had provoked the Court by launching a campaign over the doctored exam scores of the Chief Justice’s daughter, and this had prompted the ruling against Shahbaz. Asfundyar attributed the crisis 70 percent to Nawaz and 30 percent to Zardari. In Asfundyar’s view, there was an absence of trust on both sides, and what was needed was a cease-fire in which to conduct reasonable negotiations. If the march fizzled, there could be time to work out a compromise; if the march sparked violence, there was “nothing to do but pray.”

9. (C) Asfundyar welcomed the idea of UK mediation but said it was the U.S. view that counted most. He also urged that we contact the UAE to pressure Zardari and the Saudis to pressure Nawaz to back off. ANP had seen PML-N members distributing cash envelopes to a stream of supporters this week; like Zardari, Asfundyar said he believed the money was coming from the Saudis. Asfundyar was open to continue mediating if asked. He reminded Ambassador that Zardari had offered him the job of Prime Minister immediately after the February 2008 elections.

10. (C) In a separate meeting with Ambassador and Polcouns, UK High Commissioner Brinkley said he had received approval to approach the various sides, discern their bottom lines, and report back to London. HMG had not yet decided whether to take on any role of mediator or guarantor. The UK planned to make a public statement today urging the parties to resolve their differences democratically and eschew violence. Brinkley was scheduled to see PM Gilani and possibly Zardari and Shahbaz Sharif on March 11, and Chief of Army Staff General Kayani and Asfundyar Wali Khan on March 12.

11. (C) Late on March 11, the PML confirmed press reports that the PPP had reversed course (Ref B) and now had offered Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain the post of leader of the Senate if PML agreed to join PPP in a coalition government in Punjab. Shujaat will meet PM Gilani later March 11; on March 12, the newly constituted Senate would vote on a party leader. If the deal goes through, it would end governor’s rule in Punjab but it is unclear if a PPP-led government will reduce tensions. It remains unclear, however, if Shujaat can hold on to his 28-35 member “forward block” of Nawaz supporters to seal this deal. Without the PML forward block, the PPP cannot form a government.



12. (C) In a March 11 meeting with Ambassador and Polcouns, Interior Minister Malik described his efforts to mediate with the lawyers to convince them to hold a peaceful march outside of Islamabad, but he said the lawyers so far have spurned the GOP’s proposals. Malik plans to block roads into Islamabad

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beginning March 13. Ambassador warned that efforts to arrest the Sharifs or high-profile activists like Aitzaz Ahsan would not be well received in Washington or elsewhere. Malik denied he had any intention of arresting the Sharifs or Aitzaz but qualified this by saying “unless they do not stop, but I will tell you first. I have to maintain law and order.” He said he might have to arrest Imran Khan and some JI activists. (Note: On March 10, Punjab police began arresting 200-250 JI student activists and low-level PML-N workers. Mission contacts report many activists already are going underground. Neither the Sharifs nor Aitzaz Ahsan have been arrested. Geo TV News, which the GOP has criticized for being anti-government, disappeared from cable TV. See septel for updates.)

13. (C) Malik said he had received serious threat information regarding a Mumbai style attack in Karachi on March 13-14 by the Jandallah group that previously had attacked the U.S. Consulate. There were also reports of a proposed targeted killing, against whom was unclear. JI leaders were giving their students “black coats” so they could look like lawyers and already were infiltrating Islamabad. Malik expected crowds of at least 4,000-5,000 in the capital, even with road closures.

14. (S) In four conversations with Ambassador this week, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Kayani hinted that, however reluctantly, he might have to urge Zardari to resign, if conditions deteriorate. He did not offer any red lines. Kayani indicated that Asfundyar Wali Khan or someone else broadly acceptable might be an appropriate replacement for Zardari. We do not believe Army action is imminent, but we do believe Kayani was laying down a marker that, if he had to intervene, the U.S. had been forewarned and given many opportunities to avoid intervention by pressuring both Nawaz and Zardari. Kayani made it clear that regardless of how much he disliked Zardari, he distrusted Nawaz even more. The scenario Kayani hinted at was one in which he would pressure Zardari to resign (and presumably leave the country). This would not be an official Army “coup;” it would leave the PPP government led by Prime Minister Gilani in place and preclude the need for elections that likely would bring Nawaz to power.

15. (S) Kayani hinted at disquiet among his corps commanders who believe Zardari is corrupt and has not been paying enough attention to Pakistan’s economic and security challenges. ISI DG Pasha highlighted to Ambassador his concerns about Zardari’s alleged corruption on the flight to the U.S. for the strategic review, and we have multiple sources demonstrating Army complaints about Zardari. Kayani believes the U.S. has the most influence over Zardari, and he knows we are Pakistan’s most important ally, especially for increasing the capacity of the Pakistani Army. Kayani told Ambassador he has talked directly to Zardari, but he does not appear to have conveyed the seriousness of Army concerns about Zardari or the security situation vis a vis the march. (Note: Kayani may be seeking to avoid a confrontation that would prompt Zardari to make a disastrous decision to try and oust the COAS.)

A Fizzle


16. (C) At this point, everything appears to rest on the outcome of the lawyers’ march. PML-N does not have a proven reputation for putting demonstrators on the streets, although JI does. By applying the road closure/detention tactics that worked for Musharraf in 2007 to stop pro-Nawaz demonstrations, the government might be able to avoid a serious clash this time. But if a policeman fires into the crowd or a terrorist attacks protesters, all bets are off.

17. (C) There is also the likelihood that the march will not occur as scheduled. Blocked from Islamabad, there could be multiple flash points in the Punjab, early demonstrations in Islamabad, and a series of confrontations with the police. This could be a protracted clash of wills.

18. (C) Comment: Two weeks ago, Zardari was staring victory in the face after negotiating a PPP win in Senate elections, setting Nawaz up for an entirely legal

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disqualification, and looking toward successful Friends and Donors meetings that would provide the financial support needed to bolster his sagging popularity. By over-reaching to make a grab for Punjab without doing his homework on vote counting in Punjab, Zardari now needs to compromise with the Sharifs and might well be looking over his shoulder at the Army. Even if the march fizzles, Nawaz retains the high moral ground in the public’s eyes and will use it to continue attacking a weakened Zardari. Zardari needs to win back the military’s confidence.




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