Time for Pakistani Coup?

Pakistan faces the confluence of political, legal, security and economic crises that threaten to unravel the nuclear-armed Islamic country.  Unless these crises abate, a coup could be on the horizon. Even worse, the country might collapse into the arms of Islamic radicals.

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he is “extremely concerned” by the crises in Pakistan.  But he doubts that army will step in to restore stability.  Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani is “committed to a civilian government” and doesn’t want to take over as his predecessor did in 1999, Mullen explained.

Conditions today are similar to those in 1999 when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s popularity plunged amid an economic slump and a law and order crisis.  Sharif stripped the judiciary of its power after the chief judge tried to bring corruption charges against him.  What triggered the coup, however, was the military’s humiliation after Sharif ordered it to withdraw from Kashmir despite the fact that victory over India was at hand.

Today, Pakistan faces a growing political crisis which threatens that government.  President Asif Ali Zardari is trading regional sovereignty for promises of peace and abusing the levers of government for political survival.  

Zardari is expected to sign an agreement which surrenders legal control of the Swat Valley region to Taliban militias.  That agreement replaces secular rule of law for the introduction of Qur’anic law in exchange for promises that local militia will rein-in Taliban violence.   This approach has become a trend in Pakistan’s Northwest Territories and appears to be spreading into Pakistan’s eastern province of Punjab.

The president is also charged with the political excesses of his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.  Last month, the Zardari appointed Supreme Court denied opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, from holding office and Zardari even threatened to charge Sharif with sedition.  Then the president dismissed the provincial legislature in Punjab, the stronghold of Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N.  

Last week, Zardari banned all demonstrations for two weeks in anticipation of Sharif’s supporters staging a protest at the country’s parliament on March 16.  The protesters want Zardari to restore Sharif’s government in Punjab and to reinstate judges ousted for political reasons by the Musharraf regime in November 2008.

So far, hundreds of Sharif’s supporters who protested were arrested and on Sunday Sharif was detained at his home in Lahore.  Now, in anticipation of Monday’s protest in Islamabad, authorities have blocked the roads three miles out from the center of the city with metal shipping containers and the government put the army on notice that troops might be needed to protect “sensitive areas.”  Zardari has also imposed a crackdown on some Pakistani newspapers, a move akin to that of a military government.

Second, Pakistan’s legal crisis is linked to the political drama which is being manipulated by Sharif for personal gain.  He has taken up the cause of anti-government lawyers who seek the reinstatement of former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.  Sharif’s support for that cause only came after Zardari’s Supreme Court banned him and his brother Shahbaz from elected office.  

Zardari has already restored most of the judges fired by Musharraf.  Speculation is that should Chaudhry be reinstated he would move to limit Zardari’s power or reopen corruption cases against him that date back to his previous term in government.  

Third, Pakistan’s security crisis threatens stability.  Security is tenuous because Pakistan is seething with a volatile mix of violent Islamic groups.  

Pakistan’s violence problems are mostly self-inflicted.  That country harnessed Islamic extremism as a tactical and strategic tool by supporting groups that attack India over the disputed Kashmir and it supported al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan.  After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, however, President Bush recruited Pakistan away from the extremists to America’s war on terror by providing billions of dollars in aid.

American aid has not totally weaned Islamabad from using terrorism as a tool.  But what was once a useful geopolitical tool has now turned on its master.  Pakistan suffers increasing “blowback” from Islamic violence which threatens the government.  

Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan is a virtual hornet’s nest of extremists.  Pakistani Taliban supported by al Qaeda control much of the region and is now making inroads into mainland Pakistan.  This is evidenced in part by the government’s sovereignty-for-peace deals with the Taliban.

Pakistani extremists have spread their violence elsewhere.  The November 26, 2008, Mumbai, India terror attack is linked to Pakistani extremists.  That attack, which took 179 lives, revived hostilities between the nuclear-armed neighbors that have fought three wars since 1947.  

On March 3rd, a similar terror attack took place in Lahore, Pakistan.  Twelve gunmen attacked a convoy carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team.  Like the militants that attacked Mumbai, the Lahore attackers used sophisticated weapons and according to the police chief “They appeared to be well-trained terrorists.”

Finally, Pakistan’s economic crisis threatens its wobbly government.  Prices of food and fuel are up, inflation hovers at 20 percent and economic growth doesn’t keep up with the country’s rapidly growing population of 173 million which creates an eternal recession, Pakistani economist Mohsin Khan warns.

Last fall, the International Republican Institute (IRI), a U.S.-funded pro-democracy group, found 73% of 3,500 Pakistanis questioned said their personal finances were worse than the previous year and almost as many (59%) expect things to get worse.   Staples like wheat have more than doubled in cost over the past year while wages declined.
Shuja Nawaz, a director with the Washington-based Atlantic Council, claims Pakistan is living on borrowed time.  It needs an immediate infusion of $4 to $5 billion “And if you don’t do that then everything else really falls by the wayside.”

Pakistan’s poor economic conditions bolster the extremists’ leverage.  Nawaz said, “The Taliban know only that when the government is unable to deliver services, and when there is unhappiness among the general population because food prices have gone up tremendously, gasoline is not available, electricity shortages are rampant, that it is much easier to convince the people that the Taliban have the solution rather than the government.”

The confluence of these crises — political, legal, security, economic — explains Zardari’s high disapproval rate.  He won election a year ago but today the IRI poll shows 63% of Pakistanis disapprove of his performance.  That’s bad news for Pakistan’s democracy and a country that has been governed by the army half of its 61 years.

Some Pakistanis might grudgingly welcome back army rule.   “A military government at least is organized,” says Mian Muhammad Shabbir, who owns a factory in Lahore.  But for now it doesn’t appear the military is ready to step in.

The army has taken over the reins of government five times but senior officers have repeatedly insisted that General Kayani is committed to letting civilian rule take its course.  But “We can’t have chaos.  Someone is going to have to bring control,” warned an officer who serves in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.

The U.S. has a vested interest in a stable Pakistan which might mean the military takes over once again.  That’s not a strategy for the long-term but better than seeing the reins of power with Islamabad’s 60 nuclear warheads fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.

For now, the Obama administration should help Pakistan resolve its four crises and that will take nonmilitary financial assistance, political compromise, security assistance and diplomatic pressure to keep the neighbors like India at bay.