At the root of the recent “Memogate” controversy in Pakistan is the civilian government’s fear that the seemingly all-powerful military may stage yet another coup. But the question is this: why should the Pakistan Army even think of engineering a coup in a nation that is saddled with innumerable problems, including a frail economy, a highly divisive and fractious society, the home-grown jihadi outfits that are gnawing at the very root of the nation, the ever-increasing isolation of Pakistan in the international community, and a floundering foreign policy evident by the worst-ever Pakistan-U.S. relations?
The last time the army staged a coup in Pakistan – in September 1999, bringing Army Chief Pervez Musharraf to the helm of power – the ground situation in Pakistan was not this bad. In fact, the time was ripe for Musharraf to seize the reins of power after the Kargil fiasco (though it is another matter that Musharraf himself was the chief architect of the Kargil misadventure). However, Musharraf had the option of blaming it all on the hapless Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whom he ousted through his bloodless military coup – and this is precisely what he did.
This time the situation is starkly different, and the Pakistan Army would not like to directly run a state which is increasingly becoming ungovernable. Moreover, why should the army hang the albatross of ungovernability around its neck when it has been calling the shots anyway, ever since Musharraf’s departure, without any direct responsibility? The fact that the army did not intervene and chose not to oust Asif Ali Zardari’s government in the wake of the May 2nd American commando raid in Abbottabad that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden makes clear the Pakistan Army’s mindset. The threat of an army takeover of Pakistan was the most real then; not now. Almost seven months have gone by since Operation Geronimo, and Zardari and Company can rest assured that Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is not interested in seizing power, unless another Abbottabad happens.
Kayani has himself gone on record saying as much. Sample a report carried by The News on September 21, 2011, which said Kayani snubbed “quite a few participants” of the September 8th Corps Commanders’ meeting who had argued that the army takeover had become “inevitable as the country was fast descending into chaos because of the failure of the political leadership.” Evidently, Kayani does not share the over-enthusiasm of some of his corps commanders; he is not alone in his assessment. The Pakistani press indicates a picture of vertical split within Pakistan Army on the question: to go for the coup right now or not. Kayani, on the other hand, urged restraint and patience and said the civilian government should be “given more time to tackle the burning issues.”
Despite this, Pakistan’s top leadership has been underscoring the need for being alert and wary to the threat of a military takeover. The News story quoted above also had this to say: “Incidentally, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, during a visit to Karachi, said that if the government failed to deliver, others would take over – an oblique reference to the army. President Asif Ali Zardari also thought it wise to issue a statement advising his rival, Nawaz Sharif, to remain respectful to the armed forces instead of making them controversial. Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, during the hearing of the Karachi suo moto case, also urged the civilian government to deliver and not give excuses to the khakis for a takeover.”
It is not easy for the Pakistan Army to attempt a coup at this time. General Kayani is faced with a whole lot of serious issues which need to be sorted out first on a priority basis if he were to entertain ideas of taking over the reins of power. The main challenge is the military-militant cabal in Pakistan. The Abbottabad raid and the Mehran Naval Base attack in May this year were strong enough pointers in this direction, as both the incidents are symptomatic of a serious malaise that has been eroding the army’s professionalism for quite some time. The signs of this malaise could be seen in the army leadership’s obstinate hatred towards India, driven primarily by paranoia and self-interest. This fear and hatred towards an adversary which has been responding by roses to Pakistan-orchestrated militants’ guns has confused the Pakistani military leadership. The recent straying of an Indian Army helicopter to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and its return within four hours is demonstrative of this.
This confusion of the Pakistani military is worse confounded by the public anger against the US for violating their country’s sovereignty with such impunity. The common Pakistani on the street is shocked and greatly disheartened by the failure of the army and ISI to protect his country’s sovereignty and honour. What has riled the people even more is the army’s close proximity with the US military and political leadership. This has left the army on the defensive — on the one hand they were deceived by their “strategic partners” and on the other hand, their traditional enemy was talking peace. This has upset the army’s calculus as never before. Perhaps the last time they were left at sea, clutching straws in the wind, was during and after the 1971 war. These predilections have driven the military leadership to take highly irrational decisions.
The Pakistani military leadership is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the so-called war against terror. Kayani would not be unjustified in squirming at the Americans’ perennial complaint that Pakistan is not doing enough to take on the snakes in its backyard – a phrase so eloquently used by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month in a reference to the continued presence of the jihadi outfits in Pakistani territory. It was because of international pressure that the military recently launched a de-radicalisation programme in Swat where it managed to drive away the militants after a prolonged battle that cost them heavily in terms of men and officers. The army has so far lost over 3000 men and officers in various conflicts inside Pakistan since 2001. The recent incidents clearly underline the creeping fear and anxiety among the top leadership in Pakistan Army.
Clearly, General Kayani has far too much on his plate to worry about rather than thinking in terms of a coup.