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The Coup Soup

A sacked general strikes back. Nobody is mourning in Pakistan, at least now.

The Coup Soup
There are communist states, democratic states, welfare states and terrorist states. On Tuesday last, Pakistan was reduced to a comedy state. As the theatre of the absurd unfolded that evening, this is what millions of Pakistanis were reduced to witnessing.The managing director of Pakistan International Airlines (pia), Shahid Khahqan Abbassi, his advisor Nadir Chowdhury together with Rana Maqbool, the inspector general police of Sindh, took over the control tower at Qaid-e-Azam international airport, Karachi. Their mission: to stop at all costs an incoming commercial pia flight from landing. Among the passengers were chief of army staff (coas) Gen Pervez Musharraf and his wife, returning from Sri Lanka. When commanded by Maqbool to land in some neighboring country, the pilot replied, "But the only country for which we have fuel is India." "Then land in India," was the unhelpful, if cocky, reply. The aircraft had only seven minutes' worth of fuel left.

Meanwhile, in Islamabad, ptv newscaster Shaista Zaid was witness to what could have turned out to be a bloody encounter between a major and a brigadier of the Pakistani armed forces. The major had been sent by generals loyal to Musharraf to ensure that the announcement of the coas being sacked by Nawaz Sharif and that of isi chief Maj Gen Khwaja Ziauddin replacing him was not repeated. Sharif and Ziauddin were represented by, among others, the prime minister's military secretary, Brig Javed Malik, and the chief of his security, Pervez Rathore, at the ptv newsroom. In the face-off, Malik drew out his pistol and told the major to leave and ordered that the announcement should immediately go on air. The major, without losing his cool, left the newsroom.Immediately after, commandos scaled the walls of the ptv station and transmission was stopped. Telephone lines were cut in some areas and mobile phones stopped functioning. Nobody knew at that point whether these troops were loyal to Ziauddin or Musharraf.

Soon after, Pakistanis were glued to their TV screens as a continuous strip was being relayed at the bottom of the screen saying that the Nawaz Sharif government had been removed and that the coas would soon make an important announcement. Meanwhile, the recently-converted comedy state was reduced to watching a documentary on monkeys in the wild till three in the morning, when the coas-in commando uniform-made a brief announcement. "I wish to inform you that the armed forces have moved in as a last resort to prevent any further destabilisation. I have done so with all sincerity, loyalty and selfless devotion to the country with the armed forces firmly behind me." The nights of the general had begun.Watching all this with some consternation was the international community, especially the US. Outlook has learned that the US administration is privately threatening Pakistan with global economic isolation even though it has not publicly described what's happening in Pakistan as a military coup. A White House source told Outlook that Washington would confer with European leaders on a "collective response", which could include economic sanctions.

However, most analysts feel that Sharif only got his comeuppance for overstretching his powers. "The army's hand was forced," says political commentator Ayaz Amir. "If it had not done what it did, it would have stood condemned before the bar of history. The Sharifs (Nawaz and brother Shahbaz, who is the chief minister of Punjab) were only seeking to do to the army what they had earlier done to the Supreme Court: sow the seeds of dissension in its higher echelons so as to render it ineffective as a check on their ambitions."The seeds of mistrust between Sharif and his army chief had been sown in the wake of the fiasco at Kargil. The military had never really forgiven Sharif for running to Washington and seeking that country's help before recalling his army from the heights. Flushed with the "success" of his Washington visit, Sharif tried kicking Musharraf upstairs into the joint chief of staff committee in a bid to make way for Ziauddin. However, if Sharif thought that that move would buy him time, he grossly miscalculated.

Apart from the Kargil debacle, the government's dalliances in the international arena also played a role in its downfall. Shahbaz Sharif's recent trip to Washington elicited one of the most damaging statements against the Pakistani armed forces by the US State Department, in the form of a warning against any military takeover. Ziauddin also visited Washington and, in a marked departure from the norm, his agenda and briefings were made public. On his return, Sharif sent Ziauddin to Kandahar in Afghanistan, where he had a meeting with Taliban chief Mullah Omar. But as sectarian violence suddenly erupted in Pakistan, first Shahbaz and then Nawaz publicly blamed the Taliban for supporting terrorism and for allowing training camps for Sunni extremists involved in attacks on Shias back home. However, in a bizarre development, the foreign office came out to say that neither Afghanistan nor the Taliban were involved in terrorism in Pakistan. Many think the move was dictated by the army.With both Sharif and Musharraf shadow-boxing while at the same time looking over their shoulders, it was clear one had to go. When reports of Quetta Corp Commander Lt Gen Tariq Pervez's meeting with Sharif reached Musharraf, he knew that the time was nearing. He immediately sacked Pervez, giving reason for Sharif to play his last card. Driving past the elite Islamabad Club on Monday afternoon, Sharif gave verbal orders that Ziauddin was to be the new coas and Musharraf removed. Once back at Prime Minister's House, he invited Ziauddin for consultations. The first and last advice from Ziauddin to Sharif was to prevent Musharraf from landing in a busy airport terminal like Karachi, which anyway was hostile to the government. And the rest, as they say, is history.The generals are presently running out of time as they plan their next moves. One thing is clear. No one in Pakistan wants fresh elections unless some sweeping reforms take place. "The days of Bhuttos and Sharifs may never return to Pakistan," was the remark of a military officer as reported in The News. Giving the army time is the immediate, petty concerns of the politicians. "Even now, most of the Opposition's gladiators have lost no time in welcoming the army action. In a democratic culture, it should be possible to have governments removed through parliament or even through popular movements. But because of the hypocrisy which has become ingrained in our character, we always end up by finding a solution that takes us no further in our search for a viable political order, and, in fact, sets us back in many ways. This is the sad reality with which Gen Musharraf now has to wrestle and it is not a responsibility that anyone can envy," The Dawn editorialised.

Another unenviable responsibility is that of getting the Pakistani economy back on track. A task made no easier by the suspension of imf aid. Pakistan owes $32 billion to its international creditors. Although Islamabad recently persuaded international donors to roll over $3.3 billion in soft loans, those agreements have yet to be ratified and could easily unravel. "We were negotiating with prime minister Sharif and had made certain conditions which had not been satisfied," says imf managing director Michel Camdessus. "The imf is not going to provide aid on its own, so the imf's own aid is suspended." Under the new rules of engagement of the imf, much stricter controls over lending are being exercised, with good governance being a key factor in loan packages.

US legislators have also weighed in against Pakistan. Democrat Senator Gary Ackerman, seeking tighter sanctions, did some plainspeaking. "When a fired general overthrows a duly-elected civilian head of government, it looks like a coup, it talks like a coup and it walks like a coup because it is coup! It is a military coup in Pakistan and not a 'military takeover'," he emphasised. "I am asking the administration to immediately impose punitive measures against the new regime of Gen Musharraf. The administration must invoke Section 508 of the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 1999, which prohibits US aid of any kind to any country whose duly-elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree".

His Republican colleague, Benjamin Gilman-who is also chairman of the House International Relations Committee-said, "I am concerned that these actions by Pakistan's military, in addition to the recent Pakistan-backed militant incursion into India, will lead to further instability in South Asia."Meanwhile, a diplomatic source in Washington says that the situation in Pakistan would delay the resumption of peace talks with India. "It would be impossible for India to revive the Lahore process at this point of time. India would need to heighten security along the borders with Pakistan," he says.However, a State Department source was very non-committal when asked how the US would conduct business with the new regime in Pakistan. "Both the US and India have much at stake in restoring and preserving a stable, economically viable, and democratically-ruled Pakistan that reflects the true wishes of its people," he said, but declined to go further.Back in Pakistan, Musharraf has so far refused to be drawn into drawing room politics pitting one politician against another. It appears that he will at the end of the day form a national government comprised of people with no vested interest, go for drastic accountability and bring in fresh reforms before going for elections. It is no surprise that constitutional experts like Raza Kazim, a human rights activist, says that the proclamation of Emergency by Musharraf is a very well-drafted order which respects and preserves fundamental rights. "Unlike in the past, the present order has not put the bureaucracy in control of the people," he says. Adds former law minister and noted jurist Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim, "All institutions have failed. Now is the time for a total departure from the past and to go for a total change. A referendum should be held and the army should set out a clear agenda for it to be accepted by the people."Meanwhile, even as Sharif returns to Raiwind, his family estate, he has reason to worry. The evidence piling against him is frightening. Already, Brig Rashid Qureishi, the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations, says that Sharif could be tried for treason for trying to eliminate Musharraf by not allowing his plane to land.Previously in the comedy state, prime ministers on their return from abroad suddenly found that they had been removed. As was the case of Mohammad Khan Junejo on his return from China. But the roles have reversed: now it was a sitting coas who suddenly finds out as he returns from abroad that he has been removed. Does that mean a change in the course of Pakistan's history as well?

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