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Is Pakistan Heading For Another Military Coup?

Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani (right) meets with U.S. General David Petraeus in January. Is Kayani tempted to step in for the beleaguered government?
Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani (right) meets with U.S. General David Petraeus in January. Is Kayani tempted to step in for the beleaguered government?
The elected government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari appears powerless to stabilize deteriorating security, economic, and political conditions in Pakistan.

Quite understandably, the civilian regime's unpopularity is rising. Similar conditions in the past have triggered three military coups in that nation's 62-year modern history.

Pakistan has had four military leaders, who together ran the country for 33 years, more than half its postindependence existence. Many social groups -- including entrepreneurs, the burgeoning middle class, and the Westernized upper class -- have long viewed the military as the only stable and functional national institution. Essentially, Pakistan's armed forces remain the administration of last resort -- one frequently called upon to lead that nation out of chaos.

In recent weeks, the Pakistani Taliban and its allies -- much weakened and pushed back by the military -- have resorted to desperate acts of public savagery. Militant attacks have included female suicide bombers (a tactic pioneered by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in nearby Sri Lanka), many of whom were educated in fundamentalist madrasas.

The civilian government can neither head off the bomb blasts that are claiming the lives of innocent Pakistanis nor tame the fundamentalist militants. Zardari and his ministers are left with hollow, patriotic words as substitutes for bold, effective actions.

True, Taliban fighters penetrated the military's general headquarters in Rawalpindi and in so doing provided a psychological boost for militancy. But their plan was not a total success, since they did not get adequately inside nor were they particularly destructive.

Moreover, by targeting the military's center of prestige, the Taliban may very well have severed the few remaining ties they once had to the armed forces and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) -- which helped create and foster the Islamist groups that have now turned against their former patrons.

Far from being intimidated by the militants, the Pakistani military promptly began air strikes, followed by ground action, against Taliban strongholds in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). Once again the soldiers, rather than the politicians, are presenting themselves as Pakistan's saviors. The Islamic militancy has demonstrated the administrative ineffectiveness of the current elected government.

Government Under Fire

Those conditions alone would not prompt the military to launch another coup d'etat. But this is not the extent of Pakistan's problems. Corruption has returned with a vengeance to Pakistanis' daily lives. The economy is in a downward spiral -- and would have collapsed if not for the billions of dollars poured in by the United States, the European Union, and international agencies.

Tensions are so high that even minor breaches of public etiquette -- like kissing in public -- enrage panicky constituencies locked in struggles over Pakistan's social, religious, economic, and political future.

Simultaneously, the civilian administration has come to be seen by many Pakistani citizens as too deferential to the United States. Pakistani nationalists, anti-Western politicians, and Muslim fundamentalists have found common cause in challenging the Zardari regime's cooperation with Washington -- implausibly claiming that Pakistan's sovereignty is being undermined and the country could end up as a U.S. neo-colony.

Pakistan's military has benefited enormously from U.S. financial and technological assistance over the past three decades and surely will receive even more support in the near future as it targets Taliban strongholds. Therefore conditions placed by the U.S. Congress on $7.5 billion in economic aid to Pakistan (through the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, also known as the Kerry-Lugar Bill, signed by President Barack Obama on October 15) over the next five years should not have been of major consequence to Pakistani generals.

Indeed, both counterinsurgency operations and civil-society reconstruction have been going well of late in the NWFP and the FATA, shoring up public goodwill toward the armed forces. Yet the generals too flexed their muscles, weakening the civilian government further by publically denouncing the oversight stipulations required by the United States.

Largely in response to displeasure expressed by the world's sixth-largest armed forces' Joint Chiefs of Staff -- especially the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani -- Washington swiftly dispatched Senator John Kerry and special envoy Richard Holbrooke to Islamabad to allay local concerns and provide reassurances. Likewise, Zardari's office was quick to reject calls from members of his Pakistan People's Party to remove the dissenting generals from office for publically questioning the civilian leadership's decision to accept the aid.

Despite setbacks to its own prestige and effectiveness during the drawn-out conflict with fundamentalist militants, Pakistan's military remains for many the singular center of hope for stability. It is entwined in every aspect of Pakistan's national identity.

Kayani and his comrades may feel compelled to impose their will in seeking to restabilize Pakistan soon. Such action, no matter how seemingly necessary in the short run, will be a great setback for democracy, which, despite its major problems, is the only long-term, viable basis for Pakistan.

Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Central Eurasian, Indian, Iranian, Islamic, and international studies and former director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. He has conducted research in Pakistan since 1984. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL