Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari traveled to Dubai this week for the second time in as many months while his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, announced that he would return home to stand in next year’s election. With tension between Zardari’s civilian government and the military mounting, could South Asia’s restless democracy again fall victim to a coup?
Zardari’s last trip to Dubai in December sparked rumors of a military takeover. His government appears on the brink of collapse amid allegations that it sought American support to stave off an army coup in the wake of the special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May.
Pakistan has had its fair share of military powergrabs since independence. The army ran the country three times after 1947. Musharraf led the last military government between 1999 and 2007. His successor as army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has promised to keep the armed forces out of politics but enjoys tremendous influence as the nation has been on a war footing since the war in Afghanistan began ten years ago.
The conflict next door has deeply divided the Muslim country which is home to different ethnic groups that had never formed a nation before 1947. The majority Punjabi army is reluctant to expand operations in the western tribal region where the people are of Pasthun descent and insurgents battling NATO forces in Afghanistan are known to shelter. The army’s offenses in the region are estimated to have displaced up to half a million people. Terror has spilled into Pakistan proper with assassinations and bombings taking place in major cities including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.
The crisis is compounded the Pakistan’s troubled relationship with the United States. Musharraf committed to the War on Terror. His successors have been less adamant about stamping out the Islamist threat. Reports surfaced last month that Islamabad had been in negotiation with the Pakistani Taliban to suspend counterinsurgent operations in the frontier area. American drone attacks in the region are terribly unpopular because they sometimes incur civilian deaths.
An outright army coup would associate the military’s leadership with the American raids and overall sense of decline that is currently blamed on the civilian government. Moreover, says Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, who is a research officer at India’s Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies and a contributing analyst for Wikistrat, such a overt seizure of power could precipitate a coup from the middle ranks of the army which are more ideological and dissatisfied about America’s breach of Pakistani sovereignty in order to eliminate Bin Laden last year.
The generals are cautious, he believes, because “they are simply not sure of their footing. But they also find their window for a covert coup closing very soon for no fault of theirs.” Zardari has made the ruling Pakistan People’s Party so unpopular that the conservative Muslim League may just win by a landslide in the next election. That would frustrate suspected attempts on the part of Pakistan’s intelligence services to divide parliament and weaken the civilian government in order to justify a stronger role for the military in national politics.
Musharraf is an interesting wildcard. He has formed his own political party and intends to run for president in 2013. He could face arrest if he returns home. The exiled general is wanted for his alleged involvement in former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s murder.
According to Iyer-Mitra, there is “exactly zero support” for Musharraf. “Assuming power is the prerogative of the chief of Army Staff which is Kayani.”
Michael Kugelman, who is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, agrees that Musharraf’s political prospects are probably dim. “Not only is he reviled by many for his dictatorial policies during his last few years in power — media crackdowns, Supreme Court sackings, state of emergency declarations — but he is also faulted for the country’s current problems, especially the troubled relationship with Washington.”
Musharraf apparently still has friends among the Saudis though who maintain amicable ties with Pakistan’s security establishment. Musharraf is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia before flying to Pakistan later this month. How he’ll be welcomed may be a sign of what role there is for the once president in Pakistan today.