Pakistani President Asif Zardari’s health has been the subject of considerable speculation in Pakistan and beyond this week. Reports of Zardari being air-lifted to Dubai in an ambulance were widely reported on Tuesday (Dec 6) and further stoked by suggestions that he had suffered a heart-attack and that he was incoherent when speaking to the US President Obama the previous day.

But the anti Zardari brigade in Pakistan, which is a large constituency, interpreted this as a case of their President who is facing multiple domestic challenges, of which the Ambassador Haqqani related ‘memogate’ is the latest, trying to flee the country. As per this version, the Pakistani army and the judiciary are seeking to apply pressure on the President for a variety of transgressions and that he chose to seek safety outside of Pakistan. The fate that befell Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, his daughter Benazir and Mian Nawaz Sharief in the recent past is a stark reminder of the anxiety that can GRIP   the civilian political leadership in Pakistan.

Concurrently Pakistan was in sharp focus at the international Bonn conference on Afghanistan that took place on Monday (Dec 5), where Islamabad’s decision to boycott the event was the most significant development of the mega-event.  The reason for this dramatic boycott of Bonn by Pakistan was the US led drone attack on Saturday (Nov 26) in the Kunar province of the Af-Pak border that resulted in the death of 28 Pakistani military personnel. 

Ironically this event – which the US has stated was a genuine mistake – could well be seen as Pakistan’s equivalent of “26-11” and has united the nation against the US. The Pakistani polity is convinced that the US had carried out this drone attack from the Shamsi airbase deliberately – to ‘punish’ them and that currently Pakistan is the victim of terrorism from two fronts – that by the local Taliban and the US military!

To add to the misery and bloodshed that has afflicted the Af-Pak region, on Tuesday (Dec 6), a series of  sectarian terrorist attacks on Shia shrines  in Kabul and other towns in Afghanistan on the occasion of Moharram  by the Pakistani  Laskar e Jhangvi (LeJ) resulted in the death of more than 60 people  and  scores injured.  President Karzai promptly rushed back from Bonn and denounced forces in Pakistan for carrying out such attacks.

It is a bleak and tragic mood that envelops the region and uncertainty is writ large across the Pakistan-Afghanistan-US triangle.  It used to be said that the fortunes of Afghanistan are inexorably linked with Pakistan and that the destiny of latter in turn is shaped by the three A-s:  Allah, Army and America. Today Pakistan is in the middle of a bitter divide among the these three elements, with the Pak Army trying to selectively control the terror groups that invoke the name of Allah; the US -Pak bi-lateral relationship hitting rock-bottom and threatening to sink even further; and the American establishment seeking ineffectually to deal with the (Pak)  Army and the  terror soldiers of  Allah.

The Bonn conference of December 2011 was to take stock of the last 10 years – after a similar conference was convened in 2011, following the enormity of 9-11 and the US military operations then described as GWOT – global war against terror. The balance-sheet is depressing. Enormous material resources and invaluable lives in the thousands have been lost on all sides and there is no denouement in sight.

Bonn 2011 was rich in rhetoric and political statements but modest by way of the tangible outcomes. The global community led by the US reiterated its commitment to remain engaged with the Afghan people even after 2014 – when the US and NATO/ISAF will withdraw troops – but the reading on the wall is not encouraging. Europe is in the middle of a serious fiscal crisis and the US will be pre-occupied with its own Presidential elections even as it copes with a depressing economic and employment forecast. Domestic preoccupations will take priority in the US and Europe.

Hence the local power brokers in the Af-Pak region – the warlords, the drug mafia and the religious extremist support base in Pakistan are following an old maxim when dealing with foreigners: ‘you have the watch on your wrist but we have time on our hands’.  Those constituencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan that seek to retain control and prevent Afghanistan from stabilizing and developing into a more peaceful and post Taliban society are waiting for US and Western fatigue to mount, compelling a gradual withdrawal from the region.  Deeply aware of the many contradictions that abound, Afghan President Karzai is as beleaguered as his Pakistani counterpart – Zardari and there are many challenges before both of them.

At one level, both of them are dependent on the US to continue in office and yet their domestic populace is differently angry – or uncomfortable - with the US military presence in the region. But they are also aware that a sudden withdrawal of foreign military troops would have a de-stabilizing effect in the war against terror and embolden the local groups – be it the Pakistan Taliban and its variants, or the Afghan warlords and their Taliban.

The Zardari related rumors and mud-slinging  point to the core of the uncertainty and  the contestation that is central to managing the  Af-Pak morass – the role of the Pak  ‘fauj’ – and its equation with the civilian political leadership of  Pakistan. As long as the Pak military remains committed to ‘strategic depth’ by way of investing in terror and refuses to cede primacy to the elected civilian leadership – it is unlikely that the prevailing turbulence ad bloodshed will cease.  A far from optimistic assessment at the end of an eventful year that included the removal of Osama bin Laden but not the end of jihadi terror.