Farzana Shaikh
Associate Fellow, Asia Programme

Two events have dominated recent headlines on Pakistan: the election on 6 September of Asif Ali Zardari as the country's first civilian president, and a series of near-unprecedented attacks by US ground forces based in Afghanistan against militant hideouts in Pakistan's tribal regions, which killed scores of civilians.

Though seemingly unrelated, both are perceived by many inside Pakistan as two facets of the country's problematic engagement with the US-led 'war on terror'. Both have inflamed strong passions and both threaten to deepen divisions in a country desperate for consensus.

Although it was widely hoped that general elections held in February this year would restore stability to a country gripped by political uncertainty and convulsed by militant violence, developments since then suggest few grounds for optimism. With an economy in free-fall and no end in sight to the bloodshed afflicting vast swathes of the country, the sense of drift is palpable.

This depressing trend was underlined in August when, scarcely a week after the resignation of former President Parvez Musharraf amid threats of impeachment, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced he was withdrawing his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) from the ruling coalition. His bitter differences with his erstwhile ally, Zardari, leader of the Pakistan's People's Party (PPP) were too large.

These differences centered on Sharif's insistence upon the immediate reinstatement of more than sixty senior judges summarily dismissed by former President Musharraf in 2007 - on terms that Sharif claimed had formed the basis of his cooperation with the PPP, which he now accused of breaking its word. There was little doubt however that the PPP had always intended to stall on the judicial issue on which it was vulnerable. It was concerned that once restored, the deposed judges led by the chief justice, would mount a challenge against Musharraf's questionable amnesty absolving Benazir Bhutto and her widower, Zardari, of all charges of corruption in exchange for supporting Musharraf as a civilian president.

It is against this background that Zardari's election as president - a post he had previously intended to forego on grounds that it ought to be reserved for a non-partisan candidate - assumes particular significance. For the post of president carries with it (under changes introduced in the constitution by Musharraf) not only the power to dismiss the government, dissolve assemblies and appoint military chiefs, but also a strong measure of protection against prosecution.

It is doubtful however whether such legal immunity will be enough to confer on Zardari the credibility needed to overcome the deficit of public trust with which he enters high office. Already tainted with allegations (none of them so far proven) of the misappropriation of public funds, blackmail and murder, it is no surprise that opinion polls in the run-up to the elections showed popular support for Zardari lagged far behind his other challengers. While Zardari's political skills (notably his success in forcing Musharraf to quit) are widely acknowledged, his repeated failure to honour agreements has been widely judged in Pakistan as incompatible with the statesmanship required of the country's president.

But it is President Zardari's popular image as an instrument of US policy that is likely to be his greatest handicap. Though he has made a point of repeatedly insisting that the 'war on terror' is as much to the benefit of Pakistan as in the interests of the United States, his hopes of winning this argument in the current climate of virulent anti-Americanism in Pakistan are slim.

This raises the prospect of Zardari being forced, much like Musharraf before him, to balance conflicting interests and to end up playing a 'double game'. Finely honed by Musharraf, this 'double game' involved providing cover for pro-Taliban groups while loudly proclaiming to the Americans not only that Pakistan was fighting their war, but that it needed more than US$10 billion in US aid to keep the army on-side. But with few tangible results to show, the United States eventually lost patience with Musharraf. Having 'wised up', it is now almost certain not to allow Zardari to pull off the same trick.

It is perhaps then no coincidence that the first assault by US ground troops in South Waziristan in early September should have been timed precisely on the eve of the presidential election, leaving Zardari and his government floundering for a response. Their reaction was characteristically muddled with Pakistan's Defence Minister announcing that fuel supplies to NATO forces would be suspended in retaliation against the US attack and the Interior Ministry hastening to make amends by claiming that the suspension had been ordered in the wake of security threats against supply trucks.

Nevertheless, it would appear that Zardari himself still believes it possible to bridge the gap between his volatile domestic constituency and his US patrons, whose strong support he currently enjoys. According to speculation in recent weeks, Zardari's announcement of a halt to military operations in Swat and the tribal district of Bajaur during the holy month of Ramazan was dictated by a deal with Islamic parties, notably the Jamiat ul Ulama Islam (JUI), which insisted on a ceasefire in exchange for supporting him as president. Whether the United States, known to be hostile to such agreements with the militants, staged its own attacks to scupper any efforts by militants to re-group, is not known.

Ultimately, however, it is the deal President Zardari has made with Pakistan's military establishment that will decide his future. It is no secret that relations between the PPP and the army have long been marked by mutual suspicion, if not loathing. Lacking Bhutto's experience and her instinctive understanding of the constraints inherent in Pakistan's civil-military imbalance, Zardari runs the risk of misjudging the army's priorities.

The army's jealous control of policy over Afghanistan, Kashmir, and the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme has routinely brought it into conflict with the country's civilian governments, whose perceptions of regional stability it has rarely shared. More ominously still, it is now suggested that the army's perceptions are also radically at odds with US priorities, causing a strain in relations between America and Pakistan's military high command not seen since 9/11.

Whether President Zardari's eccentric politics can rise to the challenge of reconciling Pakistan's most formidable state institution with the country's most exigent international benefactor remains to be seen.