At Large

Waiting for the Coup

In Pakistan, military coups are the one thing the country can rely on.

By 1.27.12

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In Pakistan there is an acceptance of the necessary dominance of the military. In fact, the armed forces are about the only instrument of government on which the nation can count -- at least that's the perception that appears to prevail. As one extremely wealthy, but steadfastly anonymous, merchant recently said, "Of course the Army must get their piece of the pie, but at least you know that with them it's always neat and orderly." No wonder the nation is expectantly awaiting the next governmental takeover by the armed forces with a mixture of trepidation and hoped-for relief. Surprise will certainly not be part of the equation. Coup d'état time is once again on the Pakistani horizon.

It's hard to ignore that Pakistan's economy is in extremely bad shape. The fiscal deficit has become virtually guaranteed and support from the International Monetary Fund is just about the country's only sure non-politically connected aid source. And then there is the custom of the last decade of depending upon American military and civilian project assistance. The whole country is virtually tied to maintenance of its military.

At the same time, graft and corruption in the civilian government lives off the "business" of foreign assistance. There appears no element in Pakistani civilian political life that does not enhance its own existence from effectively tithing the government system. When it comes to private business, the cost of normal commercial activity is always operated with a built-in enhanced price structure. This "additionality" accounts for everything from the original import gratuity at the point of off-loading of goods on up the line to the accepted amount of money to be passed to the appropriate political representative.

The cycle of civilian governments being charged with corruption to be replaced through a military coup is so regular that no matter the actual state of Pakistan's treasury, the tendency for most observers, inside and outside government, is virtually always to be in a state of expectation of the next coup. After that seemingly inevitable event arrives, the plaintive calls begin for a return to civilian-led democracy.

Pakistan is once again at the stage of the expectant father of the birth of a new military coup. By the way, in the 64 years of existence of this Pakistan "family" there have been three coups delivered which have lasted nearly half the life of the country. To add an additional element to this dervish dance of governmental change is the now frequently touted theme of Pakistan as the future guardian of Afghanistan's security. At least that is what the diplomats bandy about when trying to dream up explanations of the importance of Islamabad's role in that region's peace and security.

At the moment, Pakistan's Supreme Court is threatening to cite Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani for contempt because he has refused to reopen a corruption investigation against President Asif Ali Zardari, who has held he has immunity against prosecution. A possible so-called "soft" coup by the military is now being discussed in the press. In this case, "soft" means an army takeover without tanks on the street but with the approval of the judiciary. Also under investigation is the allegation that an ally of Zardari sent a memo to several generals in the United States calling for assistance in curbing the power of Pakistan's military. This not so little issue is now called "memogate" in the media. What next?

The answer to that question might involve China. The Pakistan army's reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special operations forces was once again to turn to their comrade from the old days when the USSR supported India and China backed Pakistan. Although it hasn't been commented on to a great degree in the press, China and Pakistan have worked together to broaden China's presence in the Arabian Sea. The west Pakistani port of Gwadar, just 100 kilometers from Iran, primarily has been financed by Beijing. This deep-sea port close to the Straits of Hormuz at the eastern end of the Gulf will act to support China's naval force projection into the Indian Ocean.

A well-run Pakistani military coup in no way would be a negative in China's plans for the region. Beijing has cemented its relationship with the Pakistan Air Force by selling it fifty J-17 aircraft and forty J-10 stealth fighter jets. This is in addition to six new submarines the Chinese will sell (at bargain prices) to the Pakistan Navy over the next decade. According to Abbas Raza, head of the Pakistan Navy, continuing nuclear technical assistance along with power plants and dams show a commitment between the two countries "to extend Pakistan's strategic partnership with Beijing from the skies to the Arabian Sea."

It would seem that very little is holding back the armed forces of Pakistan from returning to power other than the personal prestige and power of General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, chief of army staff, who, so far, has not provided his very necessary approval. It would appear he is awaiting some sign from the Obama Administration as to what it intends to offer. Aren't we all, General?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.