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The Black Widower

Our not-so-strongman in Pakistan.

Last fall, during Asif Ali Zardari's first foreign trip as head of state, the Pakistani president met with Sarah Palin in New York City. The meeting occurred amid Palin's other campaign cameos with U.S.-friendly world leaders, most of whom could manage little more than an awkward grimace amid the onslaught of flashbulbs. (Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo reportedly flat-out refused to meet her.) But Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto and oft-described playboy, looked delighted as he greeted--and then charmed--the vice-presidential candidate. Zardari, who wore fashionable wire-rimmed glasses and a broad grin, called Palin "gorgeous" and then added, "Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you." Palin blushed. When a handler asked Zardari and the Alaskan governor to continue shaking hands, Zardari gestured in the photographer's direction while still staring at Palin and quipped, "If he's insisting, I might hug."

Zardari's comment created a stir back home. Stories about the incident splashed across the front pages of Pakistani newspapers. Pakistani Facebook subscribers formed a group sarcastically titled, "Zardari should marry Sarah Palin for the sake of world peace!!!!!" and railed against their president's boorishness. The imam of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, the site of a pro-Taliban rebellion in the summer of 2007, issued a fatwa against Zardari, claiming that his behavior was un-Islamic and inappropriate for the leader of a Muslim state. One could argue that it was particularly inappropriate for the leader of one of the world's least stable states. After all, this was Zardari's maiden presidential tour abroad--a time to shore up Pakistan's and America's confidence in him. His flirtation with Palin seemed to cast further doubt on his capacity to rule.

Zardari's clumsiness presents a serious problem, not only for his country but for the United States. Since 2001, Washington's approach to Islamabad has been less a matter of international relations than personal diplomacy, focused narrowly on the country's head of state. This is partly a matter of necessity: Pakistan lacks the civil institutions and governmental continuity that make deeper relationships possible. And, as Bush officials geared up for war in Afghanistan, they cherished their newfound, one-call-can-do-it-all ally, Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf promised to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda on the Afghan border and showed that he was trying to normalize relations with India to boot. When, by late 2006, the Taliban was stronger than ever and Al Qaeda had reconstituted itself inside Pakistani territory, Washington began looking for someone new. The pro-American Bhutto seemed just the person, despite her previous, less-than-successful turns as prime minister. But those plans crumbled when Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007. Then Musharraf resigned last summer, effectively leaving Zardari, at least in the eyes of many American officials, as the last, best hope for the United States.

It's an enormous responsibility and one that few expected Zardari ever to assume--not least because he had spent eight of the last eleven years in jail. He had been charged with corruption, money-laundering, murdering his brother-in-law, and evading taxes on a bulletproof BMW. Once, he allegedly attached a bomb to a businessman's leg and ordered him to withdraw his money from the bank. When Bhutto was prime minister, Zardari earned the nickname "Mr. 10 Percent" for the cut he purportedly took on government contracts. He was ultimately cleared of all the charges against him, but Zardari has often behaved more like a don than a democrat.

That will matter little to the United States if he proves to be a capable leader. But it's worth considering just how many U.S. interests are at stake in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed, Taliban-infested, economically desperate nation of 170 million people. Washington urgently needs Islamabad's help in fighting Al Qaeda and restoring stability to Afghanistan. And, as questions grow about Pakistan's complicity in November's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the United States craves a leader who can prevent full-scale war with India. Accomplishing all this would tax even the most gifted politician. Is the man who flirted with Sarah Palin up to the task?

 I met Zardari in Islamabad on August 18, perhaps the most significant day of his political career. For weeks, he had been spearheading impeachment proceedings against Pervez Musharraf, whom he blamed for failing to protect his wife. Just a few hours before I arrived at the headquarters of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which had been founded by Bhutto's father in 1967, Musharraf had announced that he was resigning under the pressure, leaving Zardari as the most powerful political figure in the country. A banner, staked into a slice of grass in front of the building, read: "CONGRATULATIONS TO ASIF ALI ZARDARI FOR LEADING THE MOVEMENT TO FIGHT THE WORST DICTATORSHIP." Inside, Zardari was shaking hands and slapping high-fives with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and other anti-Musharraf politicians.

To get in the building, I had pushed through a throng of local journalists and celebrating PPP supporters crowded near the entrance. Owing to the security hazards of living near the PPP nerve center, most of the other houses in the neighborhood had erected blast walls, some 40 feet tall. PPP-hired security guards led me through two metal detectors and into a waiting room. Top politicians from other parties milled around the hallways, hoping for a brief, private word with Zardari. Finally, an aide cleared the room of these high-profile characters, leaving only me. Zardari charged through a door. He apologized for being late, ran his hand through his hair, and fell onto a sofa. "I am half-exhausted, so if my answers aren't up to your standard," he said, "please forgive me." A framed photograph of Bhutto stood on a glass table to one side. A picture of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, rested on another. Zardari blinked forcefully once or twice, as if trying to wake up, and then flashed a pleasant, if forced, grin and told me how it was his life had come to this.

Zardari was born into the world of landed gentry, where acting haughty and debonair was expected. "Our name 'Zardari,'" he explained to me, "means 'people with wealth.'" His father, Hakim Zardari, was a middling feudal--middle class along the spectrum of landholders in the Pakistani province of Sindh--who combined a sense of entitlement with raw, urban grit. Hakim built and ran a cinema in downtown Karachi called the Bambino. The vertical sign that fronted the cinema showed a flapper, her arms outstretched as if frozen mid-jig, swinging her hips inside the top "B" of "BAMBINO." As a kid, Zardari and his friends loitered around the box office, gawking at passing girls and occasionally fighting over the finer ones. He recalled watching El Cid and Cleopatra on premier nights and humming the songs from South Pacific for months.

In the mid-1980s, Benazir Bhutto, who had taken over the PPP between her father's overthrow (in 1977) and hanging (in 1979), asked her mother to find her a suitable husband. Unmarried women in Pakistan attracted scandal, and Bhutto needed to be able to meet with male party workers at night without creating a controversy. Meanwhile, Zardari's parents had been shopping around their son, Asif, who was assisting with the family construction business at the time.

The Bhuttos and the Zardaris were not exactly cut from the same cloth. While the Bhuttos represented a political dynasty and were amongst the biggest landholders in Sindh, the Zardaris were, in the words of The Guardian, "looked down on as Johnny-come-latelies." (Hakim's feudal peers considered his cinema business a plebeian endeavor.) Bhutto was ultimately willing to overlook the social stigma of "marrying down." She was reportedly attracted to Zardari's sense of humor and open-mindedness. Yet, when asked in 1987 if her impending marriage would affect her career, Bhutto sniped, "[Asif] will not be involved in my political career at all, and I have no intention of visiting his cement works in Karachi." The two married on December 18 of that year.

I asked Zardari if he ever felt that Bhutto was out of his league. "I imagined myself as a knight in white armor," Zardari said. (He habitually muddles cliches.) He wore black slacks with a cream-colored shirt, and, though he no longer styles his mustache in the handlebar fashion, he keeps a neat chevron trimmed close to his upper lip. Soon after taking a seat, he unfastened the top two buttons of his shirt, reached in, and twisted a tuft of chest hair. "I don't think I fathomed what she was until I married her. I just couldn't grasp the ... giganticness of her personality," he added. "There is a saying in my language: 'The camel only finds out that there is something taller than him when he comes beneath a mountain.'"

In June 1989, six months after Bhutto was sworn in as the first female prime minister of Pakistan, she and Zardari came to Washington. President George H.W. Bush had invited Bhutto for an official visit to discuss the waning cold war. As Bhutto and Zardari sauntered with George and Barbara through the Rose Garden, they struck quite a collective pose: the president in a tuxedo, Barbara in a bubble-gum-colored evening gown, Bhutto decked out in green (the color of Islam and Pakistan) with a dupatta balanced precariously on her head, and Zardari in all white, sporting a bulky turban. Despite wearing clothes that flaunted his Sindhi, swashbuckling roots, however, Zardari behaved obsequiously around Bhutto, as if a clause in their marriage contract required deference to her in public. "He didn't know what to do," recalls Stephen Cohen, a Pakistan expert at the Brookings Institution who attended a dinner with Bhutto and Zardari during this visit. "She told [Zardari] to 'Go stand over there,' and he did. ... He looked totally out of his element."

In the ensuing years, Zardari seemed to settle into his role as Bhutto's number two. He stabled his horses at the prime minister's house and spent his time doing business, bolstering his unctuousness with her political influence. Shaheen Sehbai, a reporter who covered the parliament during those years and who is now an editor of the English-language newspaper The News, remembers Zardari as someone who could be "warm and dapper" in public, and a "very ruthless Mafioso type" in private. Rumors of Zardari's glad-handing and arm-twisting swirled around the parliament soon after Bhutto first took power in 1988, according to Sehbai: "We used to hear all the time that Zardari was on the take." It was Sehbai who later dubbed Zardari "Mr. 10 Percent."

In August 1990, Bhutto's government was dismissed on charges of corruption and abuse of power, and Zardari was thrown into jail. He stayed there until 1993, when Bhutto returned to power, bailed out her husband, and named him minister of the environment and, later, minister of investment. In seesaw fashion, Bhutto's government was again dismissed in November 1996 on corruption allegations, and Zardari was, once again, put in prison. In 1998, Bhutto went into exile in Dubai, facing the threat of her own incarceration.

Zardari, meanwhile, languished in Karachi Central Prison, where he was tortured--beaten with a rifle butt and slashed with shards of glass. Today, he has a sickle-shaped scar on his tongue and a scar across his neck. "This is my jugular vein," Zardari said to me, pulling down the collar of his shirt. "They cut it open and said, 'We are going to kill you.'" I asked him what kind of information his torturers hoped to extract. "Basically, they were trying to break me. They had tried everything [to defame Bhutto] but it hadn't worked," he said. His jailers offered to let him go if he could guarantee that Bhutto wouldn't return to Pakistan, a proposition he refused. Said Zardari, "They simply didn't want us to be the leaders of the PPP."

In late 2004, Zardari was finally released from jail. He flew to the United States to seek medical care for diabetes and back and heart trouble, conditions exacerbated by the torture. In 2007, 18 years after their first trip, Zardari and Bhutto were back in Washington, courting the next generation of Bushes. Though George W. Bush's administration strongly backed Musharraf, political instability and the growing pro-Taliban insurgency in Pakistan won Bhutto receptive audiences. Armed with lobbyists, she tirelessly ran the think-tank circuit and cultivated officials, arguing that a power-sharing arrangement between her and Musharraf would offer the best hope for quelling the country's problems.

The Harvard-and Oxford-educated Bhutto enchanted Washington. Policymakers, regional experts, and influential columnists seemed willing to overlook her two ineffective terms as prime minister, her dubious distinction of having supported the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and her husband's reputation as a crook. But Zardari kept a low profile. When they were together, he deferred to Bhutto, staying out of her way and calling her "The Boss."

Zardari and Bhutto eventually returned to Pakistan in October 2007, after the government waived their outstanding corruption cases. The night Bhutto arrived, after eight years in exile, suicide bombers attacked her procession, killing more than 140 people. Bhutto narrowly escaped. Just two months later and only a week after her twentieth wedding anniversary, terrorists targeted Bhutto again, this time successfully. Pakistan burned for days. The worst rioting occurred in Bhutto and Zardari's home province of Sindh. When Bhutto's family and supporters buried her, Sindhis chanted, "We don't need Pakistan! We don't need Pakistan!"

Soon after, the PPP produced Bhutto's handwritten will at a press conference. In it, she had written: "I would like my husband Asif Ali Zardari to lead you in the interim period until you and he decide what is best. I say this because he is a man of courage and honour. He spent 11 1/2 years in prison without bending despite torture. He has the political stature to keep our party united. " Having inherited Pakistan's most powerful political organization, Zardari faced a monumental choice: call the PPP into the streets to avenge his wife's murder, and possibly plunge the country into civil war; or sound a conciliatory tone in the hopes of defusing the crisis. Surprising everyone with his maturity, restraint, and leadership, Zardari chose the latter. Speaking in Sindhi at a press conference just days after Bhutto's assassination, Zardari repeated, "We want Pakistan. We want Pakistan." At one of the most volatile and dangerous moments in the country's history, Zardari led Pakistan away from the brink.

Zardari had always believed that he could flourish in a larger role, even while he kept up the appearance of being content at Bhutto's side. Like Bhutto, who watched and learned from her father before she assumed power, Zardari spent years watching and learning from his wife. His style, however, couldn't be more different than Bhutto's. Whereas she relied on intellect and charisma, Zardari relies on street smarts and cunning, qualities honed by a childhood scrapping on the steps of the Bambino and more than a decade in prison.

Consider how he rose to power this year. In the aftermath of Bhutto's December 2007 assassination, Musharraf had delayed parliamentary elections more than a month. When they were finally held in February, the PPP sailed into power, buoyed by what some called a sympathy vote. Zardari didn't run for a seat. He preferred to stay behind the scenes and play kingmaker. His detractors predicted that Zardari would fail, owing to his checkered past. Yet he soon formed a national government and four provincial governments by cobbling together alliances with partners that Bhutto, had she been in power, would likely have eschewed, including the party headed by Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto and Zardari's arch-rival. Zardari rose above deep ideological differences and years of backbiting to achieve some consensus across the political landscape. He employed his personal touch--invitations to his home, photo ops, and promises--and in the end he secured enough support to win the presidential election.

But sometimes Zardari's charm hasn't been enough, and his penchant for back-room dealings has shown a darker side, too. He doesn't handle dissent well. His political opponents and even some within the Bhutto family accuse him of murdering Benazir's brother in September 1996 to remove potential rivals within the PPP. And, shortly after the PPP's recent return to power, he sought to stifle criticism in the press by offering prominent journalists lucrative jobs in government. Beyond co-opting the media, Zardari has surrounded himself with jailhouse pals, business partners, and former exiles. Several of Zardari's fellow inmates now occupy cabinet-level posts in his government-by-friend. He tapped one of his doctors to run the National Reconstruction Bureau, an office tasked with implementing local governance schemes. (The doctor now runs the oil ministry.) Another, Dr. Qayyum Soomro, who treated Zardari in jail during his torture, is now one of his closest aides.

While the torture nearly broke Zardari physically, the more lasting consequence has been his deep mistrust of those who've not experienced the same, even people within his own party. Zardari suspects many PPP members of being on the payroll of the state's spy agency, the ISI. "These intelligence scoops work in a very subtle manner," he told me (presumably meaning "spooks") as his eyes darted around the room. Zardari has demoted some of Bhutto's former top aides to make space for his prison buddies. I mentioned that some believed he only trusted those people who have spent time, in some capacity, in jail. Zardari acknowledged as much. "When we are making decisions," he replied, "we prefer to take people who have been through the mill, because there is a constant process of trying to break us."

That process has only grown in scope now that Zardari is president. Even before the global economic meltdown this fall, the value of the Pakistani rupee had dropped sharply and foreign exchange reserves had dwindled, leaving Islamabad with no cash to buy energy or even food. (In November, the International Monetary Fund finalized a $7.6 billion loan to Pakistan to save the country from bankruptcy.) Weeks after Zardari took power, and just hours after he addressed parliament for the first time, terrorists bombed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, killing more than 50 people; and, in November, gunmen based in Pakistan went on a rampage in Mumbai, bringing India and Pakistan to the brink of war. It would be easy to conclude that Pakistan, never the most stable place even in the best of circumstances, had come unglued. That seemed to be the clear sense of the Obama administration, which has launched Predator strikes within Pakistani territory. The war against Islamic militants has gone so badly, in fact, that Zardari's government recently relented to Taliban demands and agreed to the imposition of sharia law in the Swat Valley.

When I visited Zardari in his office on the night of his great triumph, I tried to elicit his master strategy for managing the multiple crises unfurling around him. "What comes next?" I asked.

Zardari paused and stared at the ceiling. "I was sitting in prison, looking at the poverty, looking at the problems of the nation, and thinking, 'How are we going to bring the country out of this mess?'" His eyes still fixed upward, he told me that he considered the problems he inherited even worse than conventionally portrayed. "I know that the figures are all wrong," he said. Then, speaking with the conviction of a man who felt that ruling Pakistan had always been his destiny: "You see, I know where the state is going." The rest of us, apparently, must wait to find out.

Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation. His first book, To Live Or Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years In Pakistan, will be published in May.

Photo of Asif Ali Zardari by Aaron Huey.

By Nicholas Schmidle