By CNN's Tim Lister
Pakistan once more finds itself enveloped in overlapping crises. Daggers are drawn between the civilian government and the military brass; the Supreme Court is reviving corruption allegations against President Asif Ali Zardari; the Taliban and other militant groups continue to carry out suicide bombings and assassinations at will; and the economy is in dire straits.
Added to which relations between Pakistan and its most important partner, the United States, are at their lowest ebb in years, according to long-time observers of the relationship. This week, Ambassador Marc Grossman, the State Department’s lead diplomat on Afghanistan and Pakistan, is visiting several countries in the region – but not Islamabad, at the Pakistanis’ request.
"His visit could fuel anti-American sentiments and create trouble for the government which is already surrounded by storms", a Pakistani official told CNN.
One of those storms is dubbed "memogate" and is being probed by a commission set up by the Supreme Court. At the center of the furor is Pakistani-American financier Mansoor Ijaz. He says that in the aftermath of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan last May, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, telephoned him with an urgent request. Haqqani asked him to contact the White House – to prevent a possible coup in Pakistan.
Ijaz says a memo "was crafted" and passed to the then Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, on May 10th. The intermediary was former U.S. National Security Adviser General James Jones. The memo was unsigned but Ijaz insisted it was authorized by "the highest authority" in Pakistan.
Its most explosive passage promised that "a new national security team will eliminate Section S of the ISI [military intelligence] charged with maintaining relations to the Taliban, Haqqani network etc. This will dramatically improve relations with Afghanistan." The United States has long contended that the ISI supports militant jihadist groups, but such a move would have been a direct challenge to the military’s authority.
General Jones acknowledges that he "felt obligated to forward" the memo as requested, but in an affidavit sent to the Supreme Court in Pakistan last month says: "I have no reason to believe that Ambassador Haqqani had any role in the creation of the memo, nor that he had any prior knowledge of the memo."
He adds: ‘My personal opinion was that the memo was not credible."
After the memo’s existence came to light last fall, a spokesman for Admiral Mullen – who had by then retired – said "he did not find it all credible and took no note of it then or later."
Haqqani has also denied drafting the memo, complaining of an "artificially created crisis over an insignificant memo written by a self-centered businessman." But he resigned his position as ambassador to the U.S. And the most powerful members of the military establishment, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Lt.-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, have told the Supreme Court they believe Haqqani was behind the memo.
In a telephone interview this week with CNN, Ijaz said he would lay out all his evidence to the commission in Islamabad "soon" once his security arrangements were assured. He maintained that in May, ambassador Haqqani assured him he had presidential authority before he forwarded the memorandum to General Jones, but acknowledged there was "no smoking gun" to prove Zardari was behind the memo. Today, with the hindsight of the past 90 days' disclosures, he believes Zardari gave "blanket approval" to have the missive delivered to Admiral Mullen.
Whatever the origins of and motive for the memo, its publication has contributed to a sharply deteriorating relationship between the government and military leadership. Last week, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani sacked defense minister General Khalid Naeem Lodhi, alleging "gross misconduct" after Lodhi passed the affidavits about 'memogate' from Kayani and Pasha directly to the Supreme Court – rather than through the Law Ministry.
It did not help that Lodhi also told the Court in effect that his ministry had no control over the military. Lodhi has since launched a legal appeal against his dismissal while General Kayani has issued a sharply-worded statement warning Gilani of "potentially grievous consequences for the country."
Opposition parties have also joined the fray in an effort to embarrass the government.
The Pakistani press is – as always – full of speculation about who will survive the current storm, who might perish and what (if any) course could ease the sense of crisis. Writing in the leading English-language newspaper Dawn, commentator Mahir Ali says: "A compromise on early elections may be the least painful route out of the present crisis, but preventing its recurrence will require a great deal more."
He and other commentators are not inspired by the alternatives to the current government led by the Pakistan People’s Party. "The trouble is there’s no guarantee, or even a strong likelihood" Ali writes "that the next coalition to take office will be a substantial improvement on the present variant."
Few observers expect a military coup. Hassan Abbas, a senior adviser at the Asia Society, told CNN: "Prospects of a military coup in near future are very low the as army leadership is well aware that the newly empowered judiciary, increasingly influential media and – most importantly- a great majority of political parties with significant public support will openly and strongly resist such a move."
Abbas also believes that the Movement for Justice led by Imran Khan, Pakistan's former cricket captain, could benefit from the current imbroglio.
"No party is likely to win clear majority," Abbas says. "However, another six months of planning and strategizing will enhance the prospects of Imran Khan's Justice Parry. His movement is gaining momentum among the young people and that can be a critical factor in next elections."
In the meantime, the word "paralysis" is on the lips of many Pakistan-watchers, as a three-cornered battle between the judiciary, civilian government and military ebbs and flows. So preoccupied are all parties with this domestic struggle that prospects for Washington to begin repairing its relationship with Pakistan seem dim.
In the wake of the U.S. air-strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Pakistan-Afghan border on November 26th, a parliamentary committee in Islamabad is examining ties with the U.S. The government has already rejected a NATO report that blamed misunderstandings on both sides for the deadly incident, amid growing anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.
Despite a massive U.S. aid program, a poll by the Pew Research Center last June found that 68% of Pakistanis saw the U.S. more as an enemy, while only 6% saw it more as a friend. Ahmed Rashid, author of "Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia," says that anti-Americanism has been fanned by the Pakistani military, despite its close ties with the Pentagon.
Writing in the current edition of the CTC Sentinel, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Rashid argues: "As each crisis point with the United States played out, the military ensured that Pakistan's elected, civilian government was sitting under a cloud of uncertainty and paralysis."
U.S. diplomats appear resigned to a long and bumpy process, even as they explore the possibility of talks with the Afghan Taliban. "There is no other solution here other than to work through our differences," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
"We absolutely view Pakistan as an essential partner to this Afghan-led reconciliation process," he added.
Hassan Abbas, author of "Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror," says the U.S. needs to think afresh. "The U.S. – Pakistan relationship is in doldrums as both sides have undue expectations from each other," he says.
"Pakistan is in the process of a major overhaul of its policy towards the U.S. and U.S. policy-makers are advised to re-evaluate, rather than merely 'review', their long-term interests in the region," Abbas adds.
In the CTC Sentinel, Ahmed Rashid sums up the situation in these stark terms. " An already weak and paranoid civilian government....is cowed by the military one day, terrified by an angry public the next," he writes.
"Other days it is defiant and threatens the army, while at the same time it is in danger of being thrown out of office by the Supreme Court."
In the words of another commentator, "In Pakistan, this is the year of living dangerously."