Rumors of Mental Health Issues Dog Pakistan's New President

Asif Ali Zardari completed a meteoric rise from polo-loving playboy to president of Pakistan today, promising not to cede "one inch" to insurgents who live along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Zardari, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's widower, takes power though he is still dogged by a reputation that gave him the nickname "Mr. Ten Percent" for allegedly skimming off the top of every deal made when his wife was in power.

He spent 11 years in prison on corruption and murder charges, although he was never convicted of anything. He has said he was tortured in prison, suffering trauma that led two psychologists to write that he had "emotional instability," including post-traumatic stress, depression and dementia, according to the Financial Times.

Asif Ali ZardariPlay

His supporters here insist that he is perfectly healthy now, pointing out that since February he has engineered former President Pervez Musharraf's resignation, pushed a political rival out of a coalition and won a presidential election in a landslide.

"My presidency will be a humble one," he said during his first news conference as president, attended by more than 200 reporters and about 75 cameras.

Chief among Zardari's concerns will be an economy veering toward default and a militancy that has never been stronger.

Sitting next to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Zardari declined to criticize the United States for recent attacks on Pakistani soil and insisted he was the right man to fight the Taliban.

Musharraf became unpopular here in part because he was seen as fighting an American war, and analysts say if Zardari is going to succeed at confronting the militancy, he will have to convince the public that he is fighting on behalf of Pakistan, not the United States.

"Yesterday's war may have not had the people behind it, but today's war does have the people of Pakistan -- in fact, it has the president of Pakistan, who himself is a victim of terrorism," Zardari said.

Reflecting Pakistani opinion polls that suggest most residents here believe peace deals with the militants would end suicide attacks, Zardari described his strategy against the Taliban as a mostly defensive one.

"We only go against people who are offensive against us," he said. "Otherwise, we have asked for peace."

President Bush, who telephoned Zardari this afternoon, used a speech today at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., to single out the importance of Pakistan in the fight against militancy.

"The same terrorists who murder innocent civilians in Karachi and Islamabad are also plotting new attacks against the United States and the nations of Europe," Bush said.

The United States engineered the return of Bhutto to Pakistan, a return that included amnesty on allegations of graft against Zardari and Bhutto. Retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a political analyst who was a defense secretary under Bhutto, believes that the deal will guarantee Zardari as a U.S. ally.

"They can trust him because he is obliged to them," Masood said. "And he understands the power of the United States, both at the personal and national level."

But Masood and analysts here believe the United States is walking on a thin line if it increases the number of attacks on Pakistani soil. And Zardari risks becoming unpopular if he is not seen as sufficiently protective of Pakistani sovereignty.

Zardari will "tolerate a lot more than any other politician, but there are limits to what he could tolerate because then it will upset and destabilize the country."

Zardari becomes one of the most powerful civilian rulers in Pakistan's history. Despite promises made by his party to the contrary, he moves into the presidential palace without stripping the office of the powers that Musharraf gave himself near the end of his term: the ability to hire and fire the chief of army staff and the ability to dissolve the parliament.

For that reason, and because he has not reinstated many of the judges fired last year by Musharraf, Zardari still has many skeptics, some from his own party.

"The country needs major surgery," said Iqbal Heider, the vice chairman of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission and Bhutto's former attorney general. "Country needs a statesman. Country needs a person in whom people have confidence. In just three months, he has destroyed his credibility."

Zardari's political opponents are even more critical.

"If you have no credibility, if you have no integrity, if your hands are tainted with corruption, then you cannot govern 170 million people," said Roedad Khan, who has worked with five Pakistani presidents and is a senior member of the opposition party in Pakistan.

Leading a recent protest march through the streets of Islamabad, Imran Khan, the cricket star turned politician, said under Zardari, "the transition to democracy has been hijacked."

"He has serious allegations -- corruption allegations, things about his mental health. ... All these need to be put in front of an independent justice system."

Khan was referring to the report by the Financial Times that Zardari had suffered so much during prison that he experiences"instability," and memory and concentration problems.

Zardari's lawyer in New York calls the claims "old news."

"The politics of vilification aimed at maligning both Shaheed Mohtrama Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari had been rejected by the people of Pakistan time and again," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a Zardari spokeswoman, using the word for martyred.

The reports, Ispahani says, were "a relic of the era of dictatorship and personal destruction. ... It is part of Pakistan's past, but certainly not its future."

"You have got to understand that while he was in prison on charges that were never proven, there were attempts to kill him," Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan's high commissioner to London and a friend of the Bhutto family, told the Financial Times. "At that time, he was surrounded by fear all the time. Any human being living in such a condition will of course suffer from the effects of continuous fear. But that is all history."

"In fact, many people were very impressed to see Mr. Zardari go through the trauma of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, but still hold himself together, hold his family, especially his children, close to him at this very difficult time."

Zardari held his first news conference with Karzai, and the two leaders immediately pledged to fight terrorism together.

Karzai has repeatedly criticized Pakistan for failing to stop militants from crossing into Afghanistan.

But today, he praised Zardari for a "good will and a vision, not only for the two countries, but for the region."

In July Karzai accused the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, of helping militants bomb the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Zardari sidestepped a question about his government's relationship with the notoriously independent ISI, saying he would work to fix "any weaknesses."

He will do so with a mandate from lawmakers, but not one from the Pakistani public.

Last week Gallup Pakistan released a poll in which Zardari received a 26 percent approval rating from Pakistanis. The winning vote in the horse race between three presidential candidates, including Zardari, went to "none of the above."