US vice president-elect Jo Biden made a low profile visit to Islamabad last week - two days after Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani sacked his National Security Adviser (NSA) Mehmood Ali Durrani Jan 7.
Durrani, earlier military assistant to ex military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haque and held in high esteem by Benazir Bhutto, was a close confidant of former army ruler Pervez Musharraf and in 2007 had engineered the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-Musharraf rapprochement. It is understood that he was hand-picked by President Asif Zardari to be the NSA.
The grave crime that Durrani had committed was ostensibly in not keeping his immediate political boss Prime Minister Gilani in the loop, but most of Islamabad believes that he was sacked unceremoniously for speaking the truth.
On Jan 7, the highly respected Durrani admitted to an Indian TV channel that Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone survivor among the terrorists who had carried out the Nov 26 Mumbai attacks, was indeed a Pakistani. Hours later, the news of his sacking was announced and this when President Zardari was not in the country.
But in a non-linear manner, both the Biden visit and the Durrani sacking only add to the heavy cross that President Zardari is now carrying in his desperate attempt to provide credible civilian leadership to his beleaguered nation.
Senator Biden is a person with enormous experience in the foreign policy domain and his visit as the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee just 10 days before he becomes the second most powerful individual in the US is of deep importance to the incoming Obama White House.
The new administration has indicated that the Pakistan-Afghan quagmire will be accorded the highest priority in the US war against terror and the surge strategy suggests that the current 30,000 troop level will soon be doubled. Thus we have had a flurry of high level political consultations with Kabul, Islamabad, Delhi and Washington in close contact - hence the Zardari visit to Kabul and the Karzai visit to Delhi amongst others.
Unlike the visit of US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher to Islamabad last week, the Biden visit was short on official detail and there was no detailed briefing on the various meetings that took place. However, the senator met President Zardari, Gilani and Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and apart from encouraging India and Pakistan to resolve the post Mumbai tension peacefully, he reiterated US commitment to Pakistan.
Further, Biden acknowledged Islamabad's important contributions to the war on terror and in an instructive nuance, he added that the US under president Barack Obama would support Pakistan's efforts to strengthen democracy to fight terrorism, and to meet its socio-economic and capacity-building requirements.
Reading between the lines, one may infer that a quiet message was conveyed to the Zardari government about what the Obama team would expect from Islamabad. The support of the Pakistan military for US troops in Afghanistan will be of top priority - more so after the manner in which US-NATO logistic trucks were torched by neo Taliban elements in Pakistan, as also the cracking down on the support structures for the Al Qaeda and related terrorist groups.
In this context, the meeting with General Kayani assumes importance. However, the current mood in Pakistan - after the Israeli action against Hamas - is intensely anti-US and this was evident in the mass protests across the country. Thus for the Zardari regime and the Pakistan military to support the US war against terror at a time when US drones are keeping up their offensive in the tribal areas will be fraught with tension.
Pakistan is currently facing a severe fiscal crisis and the current trade deficit for the last six months is $9.55 billion which is an increase of almost 16 percent over comparable figures of the last year. The much anticipated meeting of the IMF to clear the second trance of the IMF emergency loan has been postponed and thus the US aid of $1.5 billion as outlined in the Biden-Lugar Bill with its non-military emphasis becomes critical. And if president-elect Obama is as committed to strengthening democracy in Pakistan as his vice president, then the Kayani-led military will be on a tight leash.
And this is where the Durrani sacking acquires deeper significance as regards the Zardari cross. Applauding Durrani for speaking the truth in his characteristic manner, Pakistani columnist, the widely respected Ardeshir Cowasjee observed (Dawn, Jan 11):
"The Mumbai incident will haunt this country for long, as has the attack upon the Indian parliament earlier this century. In the vocal and verbal dangerous skirmishes indulged in by India and Pakistan since November it has transpired, and it has been admitted by Pakistan, and the world knows that the Lashkar-e-Taiba were the planners and perpetrators.
"Now who and what are the Lashkar? They are members of a group formed by Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) to wage the Kashmir freedom fight. This is admitted and recorded. So it would not be illogical to assume that if it be the Lashkar who undertook the Mumbai operation then the members concerned could conceivably have originated in Pakistan."
If one were to reconstruct the various statements that have emanated from Islamabad since the tragic events first unfolded in Mumbai Nov 26, it is evident that the Zardari led faction - of whom one presumes Durrani was an important member - wanted to find a modus-vivendi over the Mumbai attack. However, the hardliners within the military appear to have co-opted Gilani and hence this unprecedented sacking of the NSA.
The grapevine has it in Islamabad that President Zardari personally apologized to Durrani for this turn of events. But this is not the end of the intrigue and denials that now envelop Islamabad's ruling elite over the Mumbai attack.
India will not relent in the politico-diplomatic pressure that is being maintained on Islamabad to dismantle the terror infrastructure it has nurtured and the visit of Home Minister P. Chidambaram to Washington, even as the Obama team prepares to assume office, will bring necessary political traction to this objective.
Pakistan's civil society that had earlier been silenced by the war psychosis and the whipped-up anti-Indian nationalist fervor has been rudely awakened by the reality of Kasab's identity - and the ham-handed manner in which Durrani has been made a scapegoat. Facile denial as obdurate strategy in the face of irrefutable facts has its limitations as the Zardar-Kayani combine is now realizing.