Zardari's War

Pakistan's president is finally turning his sights on his most bitter foe. The trouble is, it's not the Taliban or al Qaeda he's after -- it's his chief political rival.

Last week, Washington was abuzz with a remarkable act of three-way diplomacy. Upbeat Pakistani and Afghan delegations streamed in and out of government offices, enjoying the rare experience of being included in the United States' policymaking process.

Unfortunately, back in Pakistan, politics was taking a nasty turn, one that could be far more consequential than any of the meetings in Washington.

This time, it wasn't Islamist militants or al Qaeda stirring up trouble. Rather, Pakistan's government -- elected in the wake of former President Pervez Musharraf's resignation -- has gone to war with itself.

The country's Supreme Court is once again implicated in the action, having disqualified from office the leaders of Pakistan's main opposition party: former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, the sitting chief minister of Punjab. Soon after the court's decision, President Asif Ali Zardari imposed governor's rule, effectively placing his own man in charge of his country's most populous and politically dominant province.

In response, the Sharif brothers accused Zardari of manipulating the court and have vowed to take their case to the streets. This is no idle threat. According to public opinion surveys, Sharif is now Pakistan's most popular politician. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N), might well succeed in mobilizing violent street rallies that would test the capacity of state security and could even deliver a deathblow to the coalition government in Islamabad.

In short, Pakistan's major political leaders are now in a no-holds-barred contest for political power. The time for unity and compromise appears to have passed; the era of stable democratic governance (and a loyal opposition) was fleeting.

Where does this leave U.S. President Barack Obama's bid to revive flagging U.S. fortunes in the region? As long as Pakistan's political leaders are struggling for their own survival, they will have little time for fighting the Taliban along the Afghan border or for rooting out the networks of extremist militants like those who attacked Mumbai last November. And as long as Pakistan's politics remain deeply unsettled, the United States will have a hard time building sustainable partnerships to confront the region's underlying challenges, from poverty and poor education to inadequate judicial and security structures.

Despite the claims of Pakistan's many conspiracy theorists, the United States cannot dictate political outcomes in Islamabad. Judging from the recent history of Bush administration efforts to navigate the messy end of the Musharraf era, Washington's leverage in the tussle between Zardari and Sharif will be limited. Still, the Obama team should be clear on the potential outcomes of this political clash and should do its utmost to avoid the worst.

At the moment, U.S. diplomats are most likely trying to help put a lid back on the crisis, urging both sides to retreat from battle and identify a compromise that could keep partisan competition out of the streets and inside the constitutional process. To the extent that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Representative Richard Holbrooke can support this effort, they should; a Zardari-Sharif compromise is unquestionably Washington's most appealing outcome.

But three other, less pleasant outcomes are now more likely. First, Zardari could succeed in quelling Sharif's protests, effectively sidelining his primary opponent and consolidating his own national standing. Second, Sharif could leverage street protests and existing cleavages within Zardari's party to claw his way to power. Third, destabilizing violence and prolonged political uncertainty could convince the Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to reassert control and sideline both civilian contenders.

Of these outcomes, the Obama team will find it most natural to resist the third -- return to military rule -- having just witnessed the perils of undemocratic governance and knowing that it would throw a major wrench into plans for a closer partnership and increases in U.S. assistance. Washington should encourage Kayani to keep his men in the barracks, but if the violence gets out of hand, U.S. entreaties will fall on deaf ears. The United States must therefore prepare for that unwelcome contingency by formulating a list of its highest-priority demands for any new military regime, including, but not limited to, a timeline and plans for Pakistan's return to constitutional democracy.

And there might be even worse things than military rule in Pakistan. Sharif's well-publicized Islamist ties may not determine his policies, but from a U.S. perspective they are troubling. Washington should work to avoid the worst-case scenario, in which a Sharif-led government would curtail partnership with the United States in ways that undermine critical U.S. counterterrorism goals. To some degree, Sharif's behavior will depend on whether he feels resentful or threatened by the United States, on which political allies he brings with him to Islamabad, and on how he conducts relations with Pakistan's top military and intelligence leaders. If Sharif's stock continues to rise, Washington should move quickly to share its primary strategic concerns with him directly and then assess his response accordingly.

If, on the other hand, Zardari weathers the immediate political storm, his government could veer dangerously toward unconstitutional and illiberal measures to ward off waves of popular protest. Washington's too-close association with an unpopular or repressive Zardari regime would prove no more effective than its recent association with Musharraf. Obama would then need to strike a difficult balance between closer bilateral cooperation on issues of common interest and the appearance of overdependence upon Zardari and his party. In particular, the Obama administration might need to rethink or condition apparent plans for vast increases in nonmilitary assistance, a policy intended to support Pakistan's ongoing democratic transition, not civilian authoritarianism.

There are many situations around the world bidding to become Obama's first major foreign-policy trial. But addressing the political drama in Pakistan -- a nuclear-armed state whose cooperation on the war in Afghanistan is essential -- should be high on his agenda. At the very least, the Pakistani turmoil will test the new administration's ability to avert or mitigate a crisis while it plots a comprehensive strategy for one of the world's most dangerous and complicated regions.

John Moore/Getty Images


Reverse Migration Rocks Mexico

With the U.S. economy contracting rapidly, Mexican migrants are heading back south. But they're finding the homecoming isn't quite what they imagined.

Every Saturday for nearly four years, Elena Trujillo has gone to the local department store in Morelia, Michoacn, to pick up money wired home by her 34-year-old son, ngel. This 59-year-old mother of three is one of between 16 and 35 million Mexicans who depend on remittances from relatives in the United States to boost their incomes. But in late September -- for Trujillo and for countless others -- the wire transfers stopped coming. Confused at first, Trujillo was reassured by ngel on the phone: Everything is OK; I have a surprise for you. The next week, Trujillo received another transfer, this one much larger than normal. She was ecstatic. ngel's construction work must finally be paying dividends, she thought.Then, just a few days later, ngel came back to Michoacn.I couldn't believe it. He had given up and come home, Trujillo said. He had given up on the American Dream.

Angel Trujillo is just one of as many as 3 million Mexicans who some experts and officials predict will return home from the United States in the coming months. The economic crisis in the United States is already hitting migrant workers, many of whom work in tanking industries such as construction and manufacturing. Unemployment among Mexican immigrants was 9.7 percent in January, up from 4.5 percent in March of last year, and higher than the 7.6 percent for the United States overall, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not surprisingly, remittances from the United States are also falling for the first time in the 13 years that officials have kept figures on record. In 2008, transfers dropped $1 billion compared with year before, and economists say that the effects of the recession are only beginning to be felt.

Mexico's central bank announced in late January that 20,000 of the migrants who returned for Christmas won't go back to the United States. Officials in Mexican states such as Michoacn, Puebla, and Zacatecas, which send some of the largest numbers of migrants north each year, are predicting a mass return as more migrants give up on the land of opportunity. Fewer migrants than ever are leaving Mexico, too, according to the Mexican government, with the emigration rate dropping 46 percent since 2006.

Local and federal governments have made it clear that returning migrants are more than welcome (officials even hand out information pamphlets entitled Bienvenido, paisano -- Welcome, countryman -- to help the returnees). But the realities of Mexico's economy will likely leave some doors shut.

Having fallen behind by 200,000 on a promise to create two to four times that number of new jobs by this past December, the government of President Felipe Caldern is not well placed to accept an influx of once emigrants. Mexico's economy secretary said earlier this month that zero formal jobs would be created this year. Although the Caldern administration is investing heavily in infrastructure, the jobs created will only be temporary. Local governments, like that of Michoacn, are appealing for federal subsidies to help spur growth of sectors such as agriculture and generate more jobs. They also want federal funding to help returnees set up small businesses. But officials throughout Mexico acknowledge how difficult it will be to absorb those who once left.Some experts and Mexican columnists warn that if the massive southbound flood of migrants does occur in the coming months, resentment could boil to the surface.

Jose Mendez Lopez, a 46-year-old Morelia resident who heads a construction team, is just one employer who will welcome returnees -- but will still give preference to those he knows.Unemployment is already rife in states such as Michoacn, even before an influx of returnees. And because of the experience many ex-migrants have gained in the U.S. construction industry, Mendez says, they often ask for higher pay than local workers. He can only offer about $10 a day, a standard wage for a Mexican construction worker.If push comes to shove, Mendez will hire the people he knows. But, he says, I prefer my team who has been here all along. They didn't quit on Mexico.

Returning to a land left behind poses challenges for returning migrants. In a city like Morelia, where many locals still wear traditional indigenous dress and some even wear cowboy hats, a Mexican who has lived in the United States can be spotted a mile away. The returnees wear clothes from stores like Urban Outfitters (and not the knockoff versions that are popular among ordinary Mexicans), sport new sneakers, and don baseball caps of U.S. teams (again, not the fakes). They'll shun straws that aren't pre-wrapped, and according to some local policemen, they are clueless about the code -- in other words, when to pay a bribe in order to avoid the laborious process of paying a traffic ticket.

Despite the barrage of returns late in 2008, the jury is still out over whether the predicted mass exodus from the United States will occur -- and when. Most Mexican officials, for example, are now dialing back their predictions to about one million returnees -- still a big wave coming. If the U.S. economy does go completely south, Mexico and Central America will still look worse by comparison. Migrants, advocates, and experts agree: There will be ups and downs [in the flow of migrants heading north], says Martha Luz Rojas, an immigration expert at the Colegio de la Frontera Sur, located near Mexico's southern border. But where else are migrants going to go -- Europe?

And even if the pull factors drawing immigrants to the United States decline, many still expect that push effects could overpower its stalling economy. Drug violence is consuming parts of Mexico -- an escalating phenomenon that could spur more emigration in spite of the risks faced by migrants navigating a terrain that is increasingly controlled by Mexico's organized criminal gangs.

Back in Mexico for more than two months now, ngel Trujillo is vowing to stick it out in Michoacn, even though he won't be able to send his mother a few hundred dollars a week anymore. Instead, he'll help her rebuild her home and work in construction in Morelia and its environs when he can. He's working on picking up the local accent and slang again and trying to integrate himself into the community -- if only to help him get a job in construction that suits his qualifications.This is my country, he says. I'm sure I'll get used to it.

Others, such as Juana Patio, an engineering consultant who has been working in Houston for 10 years, aren't so attached. She came back this past holiday season to sniff out opportunities in Mexico for a qualified professional like herself. She was disappointed to find that the pay is either too low or the possibility of advancement nearly nonexistent. So Patio is returning to her adopted home.I don't really like living there, but I'm going back, she says. There are always more opportunities there.