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Published: 1/23/2012

COMMENTARY

Civilian government is likely loser in Pakistan power play

BY S. AMJAD HUSSAIN

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Pakistan is going through another government crisis. The civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari is trying to ward off attacks by Pakistan's powerful army and Supreme Court.

It is widely expected that Mr. Zardari's government will fall, sooner rather than later. It is anybody's guess whether soldiers will remain in their barracks and allow the government to remain in civilian hands.

Civilian governments in Pakistan always have operated in the shadow of the military. Civilian leaders often reach beyond their own borders for support to keep the soldiers at bay. One recent effort to do that provided the impetus for the current crisis.

Pakistani military leaders were caught off guard last year when U.S. Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden in a daring operation under the nose of the military in the garrison town of Abbottabad. Pakistanis felt a collective sense of impotence and were furious at the army.

Mr. Zardari's government blamed the army for the intelligence failure. The head of the country's Inter-Services Intelligence agency offered to resign, but the government allowed him to stay.

But Mr. Zardari feared that soldiers would take over the country. Through his ambassador in Washington, he asked a well-connected Pakistani-American businessman to approach the U.S. government to prevent a possible coup.

If Mr. Zardari was looking for a back channel to retain deniability, it did not work. The businessman, Manzoor Ijaz, under pressure from Pakistan army leaders, spilled the beans.

In an article in the Financial Times, he accused the ambassador and Mr. Zardari of initiating his contact with U.S. officials. Now Pakistan's Supreme Court is looking into the affair to determine whether Mr. Zardari and the ambassador committed treason.

Last week, the Supreme Court charged Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani with contempt of court for not carrying out its orders in another case. At issue was an order that former President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's last military strongman, issued under pressure from the United States to withdraw corruption charges against former Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto, her husband Mr. Zardari, and other politicians and bureaucrats.

The order paved the way for Ms. Bhutto to return to Pakistan from exile. She was assassinated within months of her return.

The Supreme Court now says the order was unconstitutional and ordered the government to reopen the corruption cases. The government dragged its feet, so the high court ordered Mr. Gilani to appear before it to answer the contempt charge.

In the war of words between the army and the civilian government, Mr. Gilani has accused the intelligence agency of acting like a state within a state. This infuriated top army leaders, who demanded an apology.

The prime minister refused. Mr. Gilani says he is answerable only to the parliament, not to individuals. This public row has pushed the crisis between the army and the civilian government a notch higher.

Opposition parties, including one led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, are exploiting the situation to push the government to call early elections. General elections must be held by the spring of 2013. But considering the political uncertainty, they most likely will be held much earlier.

In Pakistan, most politicians have a checkered past. Many have served prison terms for corruption, only to be pardoned when their party came to power. Mr. Gilani and some of the ministers in his cabinet are no exception.

Many Pakistanis wish there were a way to reduce the influence of the army in politics. They often cite the example of Turkey, where the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has slowly ended the chokehold that the armed forces had on that country. But they forget the most important element of that process: an honest and efficient civilian government.

The tug of war among Pakistan's government, army, and Supreme Court shows no sign of ending soon. For that to change, at least one party has to retreat.

Given the changing loyalties of some politicians in Pakistan, the government is the most likely candidate. But so far, no one has blinked.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net



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