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Mr. 10%: Our Man in Islamabad

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In my office hang photos of this writer with Pakistan's last four leaders. Two of them - Zia ul Haq and Benazir Bhutto - were murdered. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted in a military coup led by photo number four, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was deposed last year by Pakistan's military.

Either leading Pakistan is a job with very poor career prospects, or I'm a jinx. Take your pick.

Now, in a delicious irony, Washington is finally getting the democracy it has been calling for in Pakistan - and it's the Mother of all Backfires.

I've not met Pakistan's current president, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto. But I've written for decades about corruption charges that relentlessly dog him. At one point, I was threatened with having acid thrown in my face if I kept writing about the Bhutto-Zardari's financial scandals.

Asif Ali Zardari became known to one and all as "Mr. 10%" from the time when he was a minister in his wife's government, in charge of approving government contracts. Critics say the 10% and other kickbacks produced millions for the Zardari-Bhutto family.

But Benazir Bhutto repeatedly insisted to me that she and her husband - who was tortured and jailed for years on corruption charges - were innocent and victims of political persecution in Pakistan's utterly corrupt legal system where "justice" goes to the biggest payer of bribes, and politicians use courts to punish their rivals. Small wonder so many Pakistanis are calling for far more honest Islamic justice.

In 2008, Washington sought to rescue Musharraf's foundering dictatorship by convincing the popular but still self-exiled Benazir Bhutto to front for him as democratic window-dressing for continued military rule. Her price: amnesty for a long list of corruption charges against her and her husband. The US and Britain quietly arranged the amnesty for the Bhuttos and thousands of their indicted supporters (and other political figures).

Just before her assassination, Benazir told me jealous associates of Musharraf were gunning for her.

Asif Zardari then inherited Benazir's Pakistan People's Party, the nation's largest. He became president, thanks to strong US and British political and financial support.

Zardari repaid this support by facilitating the US war in Afghanistan, and allowed the Pentagon to keep using Pakistan's bases and military personnel, without which the war in Afghanistan could not be prosecuted. Washington promised Pakistan's elite, pro-western leadership at least $8 billion.

That sleazy deal has now come unstuck thanks to Pakistan's newest, rather improbable democratic hero, Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. As chief justice of the Supreme Court under Musharraf, he was expected to rubber stamp government decisions.

Instead, Justice Chaudhry began enforcing the law by reinstating the dismissed corruption charges and examining the legality of Musharraf's self-appointed second term.
Musharraf, with shameful backing from Washington and London, had Justice Chaudhry kicked off the bench. He, and a score of fellow judges who would not toe the line, were placed under house arrest. Some were beaten. Their pensions were canceled.

But the ebbing of Zardari's power has resulted in the reinstatement by parliament of Justice Chaudhry, who promptly reinstated all the old charges. For the first time, Pakistan was tasting the true institutions of democracy at work.

Zardari has presidential immunity against criminal charges. But his chief lieutenants face prosecution, notably regime strongman, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, and Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar. Both are key supporters and facilitators of US military operations in Afghanistan, America's use of Pakistani bases, and Pakistan's war against its own rebellious Pashtun tribesmen (AKA "Taliban").

Opposition parties are demanding Zardari and senior aides resign. Islamabad is in an uproar just when Washington needs Pakistan's government to intensify the war against the so-called Pakistani Taliban and support President Barack Obama's expanded war in Afghanistan. Washington is also intensifying drone attacks inside Pakistan, that are provoking fierce public outrage against the US, and weighing air attacks on Baluchistan Province.

Skeletons are dancing out of Zardari's closets: $63 million in illegal kickbacks and commissions allegedly hidden in Swiss bank accounts; accusation of laundering $13.7 million in Switzerland. Charges of kickbacks on helicopter and warplane deals. In 2003, Swiss magistrates found Zardari and Bhutto guilty of money laundering, sentencing them to a six month suspended jail term, a fine of $50,000, and ordering them to repay $11 million to Pakistan's government.

Zardari has an estimated personal fortune of $2 billion; luxurious properties in the US, France, Spain and Britain, and on it goes. He avoided trial in Switzerland by claiming mental illness.

In 2008, Gen. Musharraf had all charges against the Bhuttos dropped as part of the US-engineered plan for a diumverate with Benazir.

The Bhuttos remain one of the largest feudal landowners in a desperately poor nation where annual income is US$1,027 and illiteracy over 50%. Pakistan has been ruled since its creation in 1947 by either callous feudal landlords, who bought and sold politicians like bags of Basmati rice, or by generals.

It appears that Zardari's days as Washington's man in Islamabad are numbered. Anti-American fury is surging, with popular claims that Pakistan has been "occupied" by the US, treated like a third-rate banana republic, and is run by corrupt, US-installed stooges and crooks. Shades of Iran under the Shah, and Egypt under Sadat.

Many Pakistanis blame the current bloody wave of bombings in their nation on US mercenaries from Xe (formerly Blackwater), and old foe India staging attacks in revenge for decades of bombings in Kashmir, Punjab and its eastern hill states by Pakistani intelligence.

Most Pakistanis believe Washington is bent on tearing apart their unstable nation to seize its nuclear weapons.

Washington is almost back to square one in turbulent Pakistan. When Zardari goes or is kicked upstairs as an impotent figurehead, attention will turn to Pakistan's 617,000-man military and its commander, Gen - or should we say "president-elect" Ashfaq Kiyani? He is already in almost constant contact with the Pentagon.

In 2010, the ugly acronym, "Afpak," will bedevil, befuddle, and consume the Obama White House that so unwisely and rashly ignored Gen. Douglas MacArthur's wise warning to avoid land wars in Asia.

As the US expands the Afghan War, its strategic rear area in Pakistan is up in flames.