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Pakistan: Zardari’s Foreign Jaunts – Analysis


By Rajeev Sharma

On March 27, President Asif Ali Zardari set a new world record for Pakistan. As he flew into London from Dushanbe, he became the first elected head of state to have spent maximum time overseas since taking up the reins of office in September 2008. And his critics expected the nation of 180 million people to plunge into a heated debate. It didn’t.

In any other country, Zardari’s feat could have become front page stuff with TV talk show hosts conducting an instant SMS poll. But Pakistan is a state where people are either disinterested or ignorant of what goes on in their twin cities – Islamabad and Rawalpindi – former the home to political ruling class, steel frame of the country and diplomats on a mission to the country, and the latter the home to the Khakis, who preside over the destiny of the nation, and their trusted sleuths who keep tabs on everything that catches their fancy at home and across the borders in all directions.

Zardari has a competitor in Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani for frequent flyer honours. Together they have visited 49 countries.

With a net worth of $1.8 billion (2005 estimates), and homes in Britain, France and Dubai, Zardari can afford the luxury of frequent foreign tours on his own. But all his foreign tours were neither pleasure trips nor business tours. They were focused entirely on foreign policy objectives identified by the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi.

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari
Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari

‘Our Mr Five per cent is the HMV of the Khakis’, says a political analyst with a chuckle. British author Michael Burleigh has a different take. “Zardari is not Mr Ten percent. He has recently become Mr Hundred and Ten Per Cent”, he wrote in the Daily Mail of London.

For the uninitiated in Pakistani ways, HMV stands for His Majesties Voice, and the Majesty is not a single entity like in a monarchy. Here in Pakistan, His Majesty is a two-in-one: the army chief and his brains trust heading the Inter Services Intelligence with Corps commanders providing the props. The Majesty’s grip is akin to Mafiosi’s in the way its power edifice is created and the way multi-layered control it exercises over the economic levers. Pakistan Generals are braggarts but are poor business men as the country’s dependence on IMF doles shows.

Given the influence the United States thinks it exercises over Pakistan right from the good old days of CENTO and SENTO to present day NATO, the 11th President of Pakistan should be a regular on the Capitol Hill and at the White House but his visits to Washington and New York are no more than mandatory stopovers, the only exception being the visit in January of 2011 to attend Richard Holbrooke’s memorial service held at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Again for the benefit of the uninitiated, Richard Holbrooke, was US Special Envoy for Af-Pak region, where he brokered no breakthroughs to the great relief of Pakistani establishment

Beijing was Zardari’s preferred destination. He visits China almost once in three months. Among world leaders Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore has made the highest numbers of China trips, but in regard to the frequency of visits, Zardari is miles ahead of him. In fact, he surpassed the bench mark set by his predecessor, General Musharraf by the time he undertook his fifth visit. China is normally comfortable with Pakistani military rulers. Its willingness to play host to the frequent flyer shows that President Zardari succeeded in becoming an insider, with his sales pitch for GHQ plans like closer linkages between Pakistan and Xinjiang.

Gas pipeline and rail line between Gwadar port and Xinjiang was Musharraf’s idea. Zardari almost had his way with the Chinese on the pipeline plan with Iran also wooing China. The American Rambo played spoils sport this March and Chinese companies have rolled back their plans for syndicating funds for the Iran –Pakistan pipeline. And Zardari has turned to Moscow for help. . He undertook his first formal visit to Russian capital just ten days after the Americans killed Osama bin Laden in a daring early morning raid on his Abbotabad hide out.

The credit for opening Moscow-Islamabad channel does not go to President Zardari though. Gen Musharraf laid the ground work with his state visit in February 2003. The businessman turned politician expanded the opening with his frequent interaction with the Russian leadership, and by working on Russian fears of drug menace, Islamic fundamentalism and Afghan turmoil when the US led coalition forces leave Kabul. This is a subject of utmost interest to Rawalpindi

Zardari and his dapper Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani are furthering the GHQ plans by holding or hosting summits with Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran and Tajikistan. In fact, the last stop of President Zardari before he arrived in London on March 27 was Dushanbe, where he attended a conference on regional peace and cooperation hosted by Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon and attended by over 70 countries and international organizations.

Gilgit Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of Pakistan are separated from Tajikistan by the narrow Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. This belt of Pakistan borders the Kashgar prefecture of China’s troubled Xinjiang province.

“My presence specially demonstrates Pakistan’s commitment to Afghan peace, development and prosperity and Pakistan’s strong belief that Afghanistan and Pakistan’s destinies are interlinked,” President Zardari told the Dushanbe summit. “When I support development for Afghanistan, I am in essence supporting the development for Pakistan,” he declared in a true statesman style.

What he left unsaid and certainly will never tell the world is that his turf space is decided by his country’s permanent establishment. The army doesn’t trust the Mr Ten Percent in matters nuclear. The subject of nuclear reactors and nuclear power plants is therefore off his agenda for China.

Zardari’s maiden foreign tour as President in September 2008 was expectedly to the land of the Great Wall when he announced his plan to hop in once in a quarter. As a chronicler says, he actually kept his word to the great surprise of his Chinese hosts and to the dismay of his critics at home. His father-in-law Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had visited China thrice between 1972 and 1976, and his wife, Benazir Bhutto also made three visits to China (Feb 1989, Dec 1993 and Sept 1995).

Interestingly, all visits of President Zardari to China were not undertaken at the invitation of the Chinese government. Nor were they confined to Beijing and the usual tourist circuit. He visited a number of Chinese provinces, including Zhejiang and Guangzhou. His discussions with local officials and experts resulted in what are essentially ‘non-transparent’ Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) ) on diverse areas – cooperation in drug production, and promotion of fisheries, construction of a dam at Bunji in the Astore district of Gilgit-Baltistan to generate 7,000 Megawatts of electricity, and capacity expansion of Russia built sick Pakistan Steel Mills (PMS)

The PMS deal with the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) attracted a wider comment since it was the costliest of all deals the President had stuck in China. Primarily, Chinese role was to help expand the production capacity to five million tons from the present 1.1 million tons. The cost was pegged at $2.2 billion. An investigative report in The News International (Aug 18, 2009) brought into public domain a secrecy clause that was built into the MOU.

“This MoU (on PMS) and any discussions related to it shall remain strictly confidential between the parties and no public announcement shall be made without written consent of both parties”, one clause reads, according to the daily. “This was not our requirement but the Chinese company asked for this secrecy clause and we agreed,” officials who accompanied President Zardari on the visit said.

The Chinese company was brought on board without an open tender for the best international offers. Pakistan also committed itself to avail an additional Chinese loan of $2.2 billion.

Almost all countries of Asia and Africa who have turned to Beijing for bail outs have been silently groaning under the weight of non-transparent deals. Pakistan is not an exception. Zardari, with his business acumen, was expected to haggle out good terms. He did not and he was no match to the apparatchiks of Bamboo capitalism.

To buttress his credentials as a man of substance, President Zardari visited capital of Xinjiang along with his son and offered Eid prayers in a local mosque shortly after Uyghur Muslims under the banner of East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) indulged in one of their periodical rampages of Urumqi and its neighbourhood. Chinese were unimpressed by Zardari show. And, like India, they have begun to repeatedly point fingers at the terrorism infrastructure of Pakistan under the army-ISI control. To keep Beijing in good-humour, Zardari-Kayani combine allowed China to convert Gilgit- Baltistan into its cantonment and put the Chinese stamp on local development front.

Zardari frequently visited Riyadh and Teheran to bring together the Sunni and Shia regimes as a first step to heralding in the first Khalifat of the New Millennium for the Muslim Ummah. The clearly stated goal of al-Qaeda and Hizb-ut-Tahrir is also the re-establishment of a caliphate.

Shuttle diplomacy between the two estranged capitals was Gen Kayani’s idea who convinced himself that President Barak Obama had no stomach for the body bags coming in from the Afghan killing fields and that it was only a matter of time before the NATO led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), bowed out of Kabul. The General also factored in the reality of growing concern in the Saudi capital over the American failure to stand by long time friends in the Middle East and Africa.

Tehran went along with Kayani’s plan in its own interest to the great relief of energy hungry China. The plan went awry after the Americans unearthed an Iranian plot to assassinate on Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir last October. Kayani was forced to rejig his ‘post-withdrawal’ plans.

Zardari regularly visits Dubai where his daughters live and he has real estate and business interests. Rarely publicity is given to these visits. The only exception was on the sixth of December last year when he flew into Dubai amidst rumours of an impending coup at home. His spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, not only announced the departure for Dubai but also specified that it was for a medical check-up.

The talk of a Kayani coup originated from the Talkathon shows on Private Pakistani TV Channels and was quickly picked up by New Delhi and Washington, the two capitals which are given to missing the woods for the trees where Pakistan is concerned. India, for instance, failed to read its own frontline situation reports between May and July 1999 and paid a heavy price when Gen Pervez Musharraf launched an attack on the Kargil district of Kashmir and pushed his soldiers into positions on the Indian side of the LOC.

For the Pakistan army, acquisition of Kargil remains an unfinished agenda since the Baltistan district is incomplete without Kargil. Pakistan’s first war against India, also known as the First Kashmir War (1947–48) resulted in the present day Line of Control (LOC) that bisects the Baltistan district, with Kargil lying on the Indian side. The town is strategically important for India as its Srinagar -Leh national highway (NH 1D) passes through Kargil.

As the British journalist George Fulton wrote in the Foreign Affairs (January 22, 2012) the Kayani coup talk was a manifestation of a crisis that started in October, “when an American businessman of Pakistani origin, Mansoor Ijaz, claimed that he was asked to deliver a secret letter to U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen on behalf of Pakistan’s civilian government. The anonymous memo requested U.S. protection from a military coup that the Zardari government feared was in the offing. In return, Islamabad offered to dismantle part of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that the USbelieved was causing trouble to them in the Afghan theatre. It also promised the green signal to US operations against al Qaeda on Pakistani soil.

The Memogate is a useful stick the military has created for making Zardari to not outgrow its brief. Had Zardari really feared a coup, he would have knocked at the White House like his betenoire Nawaz Sharif did on the Thanksgiving Day of 2009 to stop the Kargil War against India mounted by his army chief Musharraf.

The President and his chosen brand of PPP lawmakers may have remained insensitive to the people’s problems but are not foolish enough to cut the rope that has been their life line. Zardari is no novice in the game of survival as his tour of Britain and France in 2011 showed.

The Britain leg of his tour was pure ‘army decreed’ business even as floods devastated his native Sindh rendering an estimated four million homeless and pushing another eight million to live on doles. “Our President’s justification of visit to Britain was to negotiate with (Prime Minister) Cameron on his statement in India, but justification was just justification, nothing more”, says Sajida Khan Niazi, a columnist withIslamabad daily, The Daily Mail.

For the benefit of the uninitiated Cameroon made critical references to Pakistan’s terrorism plank during his visit to India. In an uncharacteristic remark, he said Pakistan was ‘looking both ways’ when it comes to fighting the Taliban.

France leg of Zardari tour was officially for family reunion but unadvertised purpose was the need to Babbitt the newly surfaced stink over a 1995 deal for three French Agosta 90-B submarines. Zardari was an investment minister then. Nicolas Sarkozy was a key aide to then French President Edouard Balladur. And both of them stand accused of receiving lavish kickbacks from the Agosta deal.

The usually cool of month of October (2011) propelled President Zardari to undertake three foreign visits in just one month. Yes, it was a record and it is unlikely to be rewritten.

“In the third week of October, President Zardari went on an official visit to Jordon to attend the World Economic Forum, but cut short his visit due to death of Begum Nusrat Bhutto and from there he directly flew to Dubai and came back to Larkana with the body. After the burial of Begum Nusrat Bhutto, President Zardari flew to Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) on a one-day visit to attend the funeral of crown prince of Saudi Arabia. A day after coming back from there, he went to Turkey to attend the trilateral meeting on Afghanistan being held in Istanbul,” Asim Yasin reported in The News International on Nov 2, 2011.

There is no recorded estimate about the cost of Zardari’s jaunts to the Pakistani exchequer. Only some indicators are available. Nine visits to eight countries between September 2008 when he took over as President, and March 2009 cost the bankrupt nation a whopping over Rs150million, according to a reply given in Parliament. His delegation is usually 30-40 strong.

Zardari loves luxury and is known to pocket all expensive gifts he receives. He also is liberal with his gifts to his hosts. Zardari carried 27 gifts worth Rs62 million while going abroad during the first year of his presidency, which is one-third of the accumulated cost of the 3,039 gifts, which were given away by Pakistan leaders in three decades, noted journalist Rauf Klasra wrote in The News.

Radio Pakistan spent about $9.4 million on covering 49 foreign visits of the President and the Prime Minister during the past four years. This is big money for the loss making state broadcaster, Minister for Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan admitted in Parliament during question time, according to the Lahore daily, The Nation.

Zardari’s appetite for foreign tours shows no end; his latest was a pilgrimage to Sufi shrine at Ajmer in India with a stop over in Delhi for a private luncheon with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Like all his earlier foreign tours, the Delhi – Ajmer sojourn also bears the army stamp. The GHQ Shura has come to accept the inevitability of doing electricity and oil business with India as the short cut to Pakistan’s energy nirvana.

Zardari and Kayani make an interesting twosome. Not made for each other but each knows the limitations of other’s TINA – there is no alternative – factor. So, while Zardari is (perpetually) away… (to rephrase the recent heading of highly readable blog of Shyema Sajjad (Deputy Editor at, Kayani is busy at home remote controlling rival political players and straining every nerve to insulate the army from the mess that the Pakistan state is today.


1. Why Cameron should count his fingers after shaking hands with Pakistan’s Mr Ten Per Cent: By Michael Burleigh in the Daily Mail, UK, Aug 5, 2010

2. Zardari`s foreign visits cost over Rs150m, Mar 13, 2009

3. Zardari paid visits to 3 foreign countries in Oct 2011

4. US embassy cables: ‘I am not Benazir and I know it’ says Zardari

5. Joint statement issued after Zardari’s state visit to China on 14-17 October 2008.

6. Zardari suddenly leaves Pak: Is he on the way out: Gilgit-Baltistan Times, Dec 7, 2011

7. Zardari breaks all records of keeping foreign gifts: Rauf Klasra, The News, Dec 23, ‘09

8. Zardari: Accidental Ascension for a Wheeler Dealer: By Jane Perlez, Sept 9, 2008

9. Zardari: the Godfather as President by Tariq Ali in The Guardian, Sept 7, 2008

10. 40 Richest Families in Pakistan

11. Zardari going abroad again for begging

12. Pakistan chief heads to India for low-profile trip|newswell|text|FRONTPAGE|s

13. Sarkozy mired in scandal over Pakistani arms deal kickbacks By Angelique Chrisafis in the Sydney Morning Herald, Nov 20, 2011

14. Does salvation of Pak economy lie in India: by Myra MacDonald in Reuters Blogs

15. Iran approves “peace pipeline” deal with Pakistan June 13, 2010

16. Zardari, in Iran, backs ‘Peace Pipeline’ Published: March. 11, 2009 at 9:41 AM

17. Wiki Leaks Memo on Iran & Pakistan & US Imperialism.

18. Secretary Clinton Concludes 3-Day Visit to Pakistan

19. Domestic Politics, International Effects

20. The locus of power: op-ed by I.A. Rehman in Dawn, Nov 12, 2009

21. Defending Prez Zardari: By Syed Shahid Husain in Business Recorder, Nov 13, 2009

22. Zardari visits Russia only 10 days after bin Laden’s death: Interview with Vyacheslav Belokrenitsky, Deputy Director at the Institute for Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

23. Drowned in rivers of incompetence & greed: by Brig (R) Samson Simon Sharaf in the Daily Mail, Islamabad

24. ‘Pakistan state radio incurred $9.4m expenses covering Gilani, Zardari’s foreign tours’

25. Trade cooperation to help check terrorism: Zardari tells Dushanbe summit.

26. Speculation Regarding Zardari

27. Zardari’s wealth overseas

28. Pakistani leader attempts damage control after European trip during disaster By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times, Aug 16, 2010

29. Pakistan president to visit his French manor: Officials, Aug 2, 2010

30. Zardari visits Bhutto’s French chateau

31. Double standards and hypocrisy: By Ayaz Amir in The News, Jan 13, 2012

32. Turkey-Pakistan Relations, January 23, 2012

33. President Zardari to visit China on August 30

34. Floods Exacerbate Pakistan’s Woes – By Zafar Iqbal

35. While you are (perpetually) away…: by Shyema Sajjjad in Dawn blogs, Aug 3, 2010

36. Abandoned ship: by Lubna Jerar Naqvi in The News, Jan 17, 2012

37. National Corruption Perception Survey 2011 of Pakistan

38. 3. Mr. Zardari as President of Pakistan

39. Asif Ali Zardari in Wikipedia

(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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