A Military Coup in Pakistan?
Restive generals represent the backers of the Taliban and al-Qaeda – bad news for the war next door
A military coup is unfolding in Pakistan, but, this time, there is no rumbling of tanks on the streets of Islamabad. Instead, it seems the military is using a new strategy for regime change in Pakistan, one that will have adverse consequences for Western troops deployed in Afghanistan.
A year after rogue elements of Pakistan’s intelligence services disrupted Indian-Pakistani peace talks by staging the Mumbai massacre, the democratically elected government of President Asif Zardari is facing a putsch from within its ranks, engineered by the men who run Pakistan’s infamous military-industrial complex.
The men who wish to replace Mr. Zardari represent the religious right-wing backers of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, adding a new obstacle in Barack Obama’s war effort in Afghanistan. A change of guard in Pakistan will also place Canadian troops at a higher risk of attack from a Taliban that will get unimpeded access to safe havens across the international border.
In the West’s war against terrorism, Mr. Zardari is probably the only politician in Pakistan who has the guts to identify the cancer of jihadi extremism and order the Pakistani army to root it out. With reluctance, the army has complied, but only half-heartedly. With him gone, it’s almost a certainty that Canada and the United States, as well as Afghanistan and India, will once more face the deception and fraud that became the hallmark of Pervez Musharraf’s military regime.
For years, the Pakistani army received billions of dollars in direct American aid while it backed the Taliban and staged faked armed encounters to deceive the Pentagon.
The army views the government’s efforts at peace with both Afghanistan and India not only with suspicion but also with alarm. Peace with India would undermine the very raison d’être of Pakistan’s massive military.
The army’s patience with Mr. Zardari ran out in October, when the U.S. Congress passed the Kerry-Lugar bill that promised billions in aid to Pakistan, but with a crucial caveat: The money would go through the channels of the civilian administration and if the military interfered with the democratic process or bullied the politicians and the judiciary, the Americans would halt all aid to the military.
The generals were in an uproar. Having lived their entire lives with a sense of entitlement that rivalled medieval caliphs and emperors, the men in uniform started a campaign to dislodge Mr. Zardari and his ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani – the authors, they said, of their misfortune.
Addicted to the billions in U.S. aid that have made them among the wealthiest in their impoverished country, Pakistan’s generals are in a Catch-22. If they overthrow the government, they risk losing the manna from America. If they do nothing, they lose their veto over government policymaking, domestic as well as foreign.
Stung by this loss of power, the generals have asked the pro-Taliban media to whip up an anti-U.S. and anti-India frenzy in the country, claiming that Mr. Zardari has sold out to the Americans and the Indians.
Mr. Zardari also is being depicted as the epitome of corruption and thus unworthy of governing Pakistan. Working from within the government, military intelligence was able to coax a junior minister to release a list of thousands of supposedly corrupt politicians and public officials in the country. Leading them was Mr. Zardari himself – notwithstanding the fact that before he was elected president, he had been imprisoned for more than a decade by the military without a single conviction.
What irks the generals is not just that they are now answerable to a civilian but that Mr. Zardari belongs to an ethnic group that is shunned by the country’s ruling Punjabi elite. Mr. Zardari is a Sindhi.
The hysteria among Pakistan’s upper-class elites demanding a military dictatorship is best reflected in an article written by a retired military officer in the right-wing newspaper The News: “Military rule should … return. … The problem with democratic governments is that they remain under pressure to go with what the majority of the citizens want, not what is best for them. … People of several South American countries that have returned to civilian rule after a long time are now beginning to feel they were better off under dictatorships.”
If Mr. Obama wishes to succeed in bringing the Afghan war to an end, he had better make sure Mr. Zardari’s elected civilian administration is allowed to govern until the end of its term. A coup in Islamabad will mean failure in Kabul.
Tarek Fatah is a former activist in Pakistan and founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress. He is author of Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State.