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In Pakistan, a New Kind of Coup

Pakistan’s Supreme Court is conducting an investigation into the memogate scandal that erupted months ago and has since created serious tension between Pakistan’s civil and military leadership. Earlier today, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani fired his defense secretary, Naeem Khalid Lodhi, a retired general. What’s more,  reports the WSJ,

Mr. Gilani upped his attack on the army this week, [claiming] that army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate spy agency Ahmed Shuja Pasha had acted unconstitutionally in responding through written answers to the court’s questions. […]

“This has very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country,” the army said of Mr. Gilani’s assertions.

It did not elaborate what the consequences could be. The statement set off discussion in Pakistan’s media of a potential military takeover.

Pakistan’s civilian leaders have tried to dismiss military and defense officials before. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif fired Army chief General Jehangir Karamat in 1998. Karamat stepped down quietly, but when Sharif tried to do the same to Karamat’s replacement, General Pervez Musharraf, Musharraf toppled the government.

This latest attempt by Gilani could backfire, but perhaps not in the familiar way, thanks to the Army’s sway over public opinion. For instance, it has used as a mouthpiece former cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan, who shares the army’s distaste for dependence on the U.S. and thinks Pakistan shouldn’t be fighting either the Afghan Taliban or Pakistani militants. In a recent Foreign Policy article detailing the Army’s increasingly deft tactics, Christine Fair notes, “In the old days, Pakistani generals sent tanks to oust a government. Now they plant stories in the press and manipulate the legal system.”

The persistence of the memogate scandal demonstrates two things. First, that Pakistan’s current civilian leaders are worried about the military’s power and intentions. Second, that the generals aren’t angling for a traditional coup. At present, they prefer to operate through the Supreme Court and sympathetic parliamentary parties. Pakistan’s military leadership likes to pull the strings from the background and keep civilian government in the hot seat.

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