– Tensions between the army and Pakistan’s civilian government have boiled over into open conflict
Messages were delivered in Islamabad on Wednesday. Through a megaphone. Minutes after the prime minister sacked the defence secretary, a retired general who acted as the army’s representative in government, the Pakistan army replaced the commander of the Triple One Brigade in Rawalpindi. This happens when a coup is about to be launched. The army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has called an emergency meeting of his principal staff officers for Thursday.
Simmering tensions between the army and Pakistan’s civilian government have boiled over into open conflict in the latest episode of a scandal dubbed memogate. A former ambassador to Washington was accused of having dictated, or solicited, a memo written by a Pakistani American businessmen to Admiral Mike Mullen, requesting his help in preventing a coup. The ambassador, Husain Haqqani, who denies knowledge of the memo, has been recalled and is effectively under house arrest in the prime minister’s heavily guarded residence, fearing for his life. Kayani and the head of the military’s spy agency, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, pressed the supreme court in affidavits to investigate the allegations against Haqqani that could lead to treason charges. The prime minister said that these affidavits were “unconstitutional and illegal”. The military responded with a statement that darkly hinted at “potentially grievous consequences”.
What is happening is a coup by other means. The army has staged four coups in the past, but this time, its instrument is a blatantly partisan supreme court, which is attempting to force an elected government to resign. The timing of the traitor tag is not accidental. In March the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) could win control over the upper house of parliament and then – whatever happens to President Asif Ali Zardari and the PPP in the next election – the next government could not change the constitution.
Mr Zardari and the PPP government can be faulted for many things. The political charge sheet is long: incompetence, weakness, venality. They reacted terribly to the worst floods in living memory. They have pandered to fundamentalism over the blasphemy law rather than facing it down. A weak state has grown steadily weaker under their civilian control. Mr Zardari carries much personal baggage, which is almost certainly worthy of further investigation, but while president, he enjoys immunity from prosecution and he is right to face down the military. The place to oust an administration enjoying a two-thirds majority is at an election, and the people to do so are voters, not judges, generals or intelligence chiefs. Anyone who allows generals to remove politicians must be aware that the same could happen to them.