At Large

Prelude to a Coup

When Pakistan's civilian leadership goes AWOL, it's a foregone conclusion what happens next.

By 9.10.10

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The floods in Pakistan and the devastation that followed since mid-summer have exposed not only the economic inequities of the country, but equally the impoverishment of its civilian government. It didn't have to be that way.

When the floods first came at the end of July there was an expectation in Pakistan that the nation's military forces -- primarily its army -- would have a central role in organizing the massive relocation and supply effort necessary in such disasters. Initially some military assistance was made available, but clearly not enough. When asked about this, the military command quite firmly indicated it had not received orders from the government to go further.

The military stayed on the sidelines waiting for the civilian leadership to act, or at least officially call in the army for help. Nothing happened, so by direct intervention of the Chief of the General Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani -- who inspected the affected areas well before Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani briefly toured the principal crisis sites -- the Pakistan Army moved in to rescue 100,000 displaced people. The civilian government was traumatized to the point of administrative catatonia.

At this stage the military was entrapped on the one hand by its moral commitment to aid its countrymen and on the other by lack of official authorization by the constitutionally elected civilian government. Neither the PM nor President Asif Ali Zardari were willing to authorize air and ground assets to move in to organize the humanitarian care required by the disastrous effects of the rains and floods. It was obvious they were avoiding any implication of even a partial implementation of martial law. As a result nothing was done.

President Zardari flew away on a previously planned trip to France and the U.K., leaving the entire mess in the hands of PM Gilani. The military urged the Gilani civilian government to provide it with the supplies to deliver to the now homeless tens of thousands, but there were no supplies to deliver. Foreign NGO's rushed in what aid they could and Gen. Kayani made sure they were given as much physical help as the army and military air transport could muster. Still Islamabad did little.

Meanwhile President Zardari was sojourning during the brutal months of August first in his chateau in France and subsequently in a five-star London hotel, insisting all the while he was "monitoring" his country's tragic situation. PM Gilani took to shuttling about the Pakistani countryside being photographed by his press corps posse. In truth there wasn't much else he could do absent a willingness to admit defeat of civilian governance and turn the entire problem over to Gen. Kayani.

There had been no lack of public reaction to the government's ineptitude and inaction, but only the most ludicrous response was generated by Zardari swanning about Europe. He explained the outcry regarding his trip abroad "gives me a reassurance that I'm so wanted…by the people." At the same time he charged "right wing forces" as "taking advantage of situations like this."

While Zardari rushed to explain that he had been referring to the Taliban rather than the Pakistan Army, analysts predicted that the Pakistan Taliban would utilize the socio-political breakdown caused by the floods to become the benefactor of the refugees. Somehow the Taliban didn't get the message and proceeded with bombings among Shia celebrants of Ramadan in Lahore and Quetta. Apparently some elements of the Pakistan Taliban are more interested in creating civil chaos than winning hearts and minds.

If the military wanted to create an environment conducive to a coup d'état it couldn't have a better political, economic, and social stimulus than the devastation that now exists in Pakistan. Estimates differ but there is a UN-published consensus currently of 1,700 dead and 2-3 million homeless out of a total of 18.7 million people affected. Disease and hunger is pervasive in the provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan.

Gen. Kayani has had considerable pressure put on him to step into the role of savior and once again have the military take over the reins of government. It is clear that there are many of his colleagues who see a return to military rule as the only path to securing the future of Pakistan. In the meantime the army doesn't want to be held responsible for the incompetence of the civilian administration of Zardari and Gilani.

The suspicion exists that the military leadership and its civilian allies are awaiting a groundswell of public reaction to the economic and social turmoil created by the floods before they move for military coup. It wouldn't be the first time this maneuver has been used. Nonetheless, any junta must realize they eventually would have to return to civilian democratic rule.

Ali Asif Zardari may be more of a manipulative businessman than a national leader, but he put his finger right on the problem recently when he said in response to a question regarding the possibility of another army coup, "I don't think anybody in their right mind would want to take that responsibility; it's only democracy that can carry that yoke."

Doesn't it depend on who is running that democracy?

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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.