The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
A New Kind of Military Coup Takes Shape in Pakistan

This spring, if everything goes according to plan, Pakistan’s government will reach a remarkable milestone. Led by the Pakistan People’s Party, which is horribly corrupt and deeply unpopular, the government will become the first civilian administration to pass the reins of government to another civilian administration in Pakistan’s history.

That is, if the army can be kept in the barracks.

C. Christine Fair, one of America’s most experienced Pakistan analysts, takes a look at the state of the country on the eve of this spring’s government transition, with a particular focus on how the army is revising its coup playbook and working on new methods of meddling in politics:

Judicial activism against the PPP government has tended to peak when the army seems to have a viable (non PML-N) alternative to the PPP. (The army would not tempt the strength of the government when the only other option is the PML-N, which has a soured relationship with general headquarters.) Notably, during 2011 and 2012, Supreme Court efforts to prosecute PPP figures coincided with the sudden rise of Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician who was widely believed to have army backing. At the height of his popularity, Khan drew large crowds that spanned generations and ethnicity. His self-proclaimed “tsunami” reinvigorated the electorate and mobilized them on the themes of corruption, restoring Pakistani sovereignty, opposition to U.S. drone strikes, and scaling back military cooperation with the United States. It was clear that Khan could not seize the government without playing coalition politics, something he declined to do. With Khan’s prospects dimmed, the court returned to relative quiescence.

That is, of course, until the sudden arrival, in January 2013, of Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri. Although Qadri had ties to two previous military rulers — Mohammad Zia ul-Haq and Musharraf — few Pakistanis had even heard of the Canadian religious scholar. He was nonetheless able to marshal some of the largest crowds even gathered in Pakistan to protest against corruption. Observers note that his rapid rise, extensive funding, and access to Pakistan’s media proved that he, too, had the support of the army. Many Pakistanis wondered about the provenance of the “martyrdom-proof container” in which he moved about. The fortified mobile residence offered resistance to high-velocity ammunition and improvised explosive devices. Even Pakistani police and politicians do not have such secure conveyances. The bizarre spectacle of Qadri moving about in his truck-mounted and armored command center left many wondering how a foreign private citizen could arrive in Pakistan from Canada and immediately obtain such high-level protection and draw such massive crowds.

 

In the old days, the Pakistani military worked with opposition civilian politicians and the judiciary to mount a coup and maintain military rule, often for a decade or more. That’s beginning to change, but to this day the military remains  arguably the most popular political force in the country.

Read the whole thing. For anyone interested in Pakistani politics, and what the country means for the United States, which sends millions of dollars of taxpayer money there every year, this is an essay that’s well worth your while.

Published on March 16, 2013 3:30 pm