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Will Pakistan’s military take the director’s chair… or center stage?

By Maria Kuusisto

While Barack Obama’s travels are focusing international media attention on India this week, rival Pakistan is on the brink of major political change. Increased violence, this summer’s flooding, and the aftermath of the global recession has left most Pakistanis feeling increasingly insecure, and President Asif Ali Zardari’s government has done little to ameliorate these anxieties.

Now it seems that just two years after the fall of former president (and general) Pervez Musharraf, the military may once more intervene. Only don’t expect a coup like the one that brought Musharraf to power in 1999. Despite a long history of meddling in Pakistan’s politics, the army is likely to stay behind the scenes this time and force the government to improve governance or face significant reshuffling.

The evidence pointing to intervention is unusually strong at the moment. Pakistan is beset by problems-political, economic, social, and security-related. Zardari’s ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is distracted by its battle with a hostile supreme court and largely disinterested in governing. The government has been unwilling and unable to introduce urgently needed financial reforms, which are necessary to bring the country’s runaway fiscal deficit under control. Zardari has also failed to increase revenue collection by introducing a value-added tax. Instead, Islamabad has been resorting to a variety of quick-fixes, such as borrowing from the state bank, to finance its growing spending commitments. These moves are undermining the economy, hindering recovery, and fuelling inflation.

Meanwhile, social tensions-always a threat in this fractious, multiethnic country-are running high. People feel abandoned by the government: They’re struggling to support themselves economically and afford basic food stables and services. These frustrations are manifesting themselves in protests, violence, crime, and terrorism. The law-and-order situation is particularly volatile in Karachi, the largest city and commercial capital. More than 1,200 people have been killed in the city’s recurring waves of politically motivated clashes between rival groups and targeted killings this year. Hence, more and more of the public feels that the PPP’s lassitude is leading to anarchy and undermining Pakistan’s national interests.

The country’s elites are looking for someone — anyone — to get them out of their current fix. Neither the PPP nor the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) are up to the job of challenging and replacing Zardari. The president is highly skillful in intimidating his enemies and incentivizing his allies within the PPP, making it hard to form a united front inside the party against him. Moreover, the PML-N is more comfortable in being an opposition force and remains reluctant to take over the responsibility of running the country. That leaves the army as the only viable challenger. Pakistan’s elites have begun calling on the military to intervene for the sake of national interest, before it’s too late.

In the old days, everyone in Pakistan knew what this meant: a coup and a military government. After all, a military government has run Pakistan for more than half of its history. This time, however, Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Pervez Kayani knows that stepping in directly would damage the military’s domestic and international reputation, which he has carefully rebuilt since Musharraf’s resignation in 2008, and could trigger a backlash. More importantly, Kayani knows that the military can’t afford to jeopardize the aid it gets from Washington — money (to the tune of $7.5 billion over five years in civilian assistance and $2 billion in military assistance) that the United States has linked to Pakistan’s ongoing democratic process. The military’s resources are already strained by its counterterrorism operations and flood relief efforts and it desperately needs those dollars from Washington.

Yet Kayani also knows he can’t just sit and watch Pakistan’s deepening crisis from the sidelines. He’s under increasing pressure from others in the military and the country’s influential elites — who comprise his political power base — to do something. In Pakistan, it is often said, only half-jokingly, that the country doesn’t have a military, the military has a country. Now, the army’s leadership is becoming worried that it may not have a country for long if it lets the political, economic, and security situation further deteriorate. As a result, expect Kayani to begin putting pressure on the PPP to improve governance, but from behind the scenes. The general, unlike his predecessor, will carefully evaluate the political mood (both domestically and internationally) and follow constitutional processes in challenging the current political set-up.

So change is coming to Pakistan, and the military may soon be sitting in the director’s seat. But expect less drama than in its past performances; most of the action will stay behind the scenes for now.

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