In Pakistan, history may not even rhyme, let alone repeat

December 24, 2011

In his book, Between Mosque and Military, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani wrote of how military coups in the past were carefully planned, yet carried out in such a way as to give the appearance of being a spontaneous reaction to an emergency.

“The Pakistan military always insists on an immediate provocation as the trigger of its coups,” wrote Haqqani, who was forced to quit last month after being accused of involvement in a memo seeking American help to rein in the army, an allegation he denies.  “The army’s ability to swiftly execute a military takeover within hours of a supposed provocation is often attributed to its having contingency plans for such occasions. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals a pattern of careful prior planning, including disorder in the streets orchestrated with the help of the reliable street power of Islamist political parties.”

No one in Pakistan is expecting an outright military takeover – the army has specifically denied it. But that ghost of coups past is haunting Pakistan in its latest political crisis, one which could ultimately force out the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

First of all, the signs pointing towards a civilian-military confrontation have been there for months – before the scandal over the alleged memo. The U.S. humiliation of the Pakistan Army in the May 2 raid which killed Osama bin Laden, and subsequent attempt to corner it over its alleged support for Afghan militants, put the military’s back against the wall in a way not seen its disastrous Kargil war of 1999. That conflict led to the ouster of then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a military coup.

Secondly. the economy is in a mess, governance has ground to a halt, and the politicians are bickering, just as they did in the 1990s. To a military mind, that is no way to run a country, and especially not a country which the army – the ultimate arbiter of national security – sometimes finds hard to distinguish from itself.

And thirdly, the army has had plenty of time to make careful preparations, if indeed it were to choose to move against the government.  Its grumbling against Zardari and his alleged corruption has been an open secret for years – rising most noticeably to the surface after the president left the country to visit France and Britain during the devastating floods in the summer of 2010.

It was around that time that cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan was first cited as an alternative. Here was a man untainted by corruption allegations, whose views broadly match those of the army, and who might be groomed by what Pakistanis call “the establishment” to rise from his position as a virtual nonentity in politics to become strong enough to challenge the existing political parties.

Though he denies taking support from the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) is now on the rise. It plans a big Christmas Day rally in Karachi after bringing out tens of thousands in support in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, in October. (At the crudest formulation of Pakistan’s conspiracy theories, the military – aided by the judiciary – would drive the PPP-led government out of office, force elections earlier than the currently scheduled 2013, and install their own man at the head of government.) 

Then to complete the parallels with the 1990s, the Islamist parties – including the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the humanitarian wing of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba – have been out in force, holding in Lahore this month what the Express Tribune called “the biggest Wahhabi-Deobandi gathering seen in a long while”.

Yet for all the many parallels with the 1990s, history does not repeat itself. Even even the adage that “history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme” does not necessarily apply. In Pakistan, it jars.

This is not the 1990s, when then army head General Pervez Musharraf could launch a military coup in 1999 and keep the Punjabi urban middle classes who dominate Pakistan’s political discourse sweet with economic growth.  Now, in the midst of a global economic crisis and with regional security threatened by the Afghan war, any new government installed through forced early elections would quickly become unpopular through its inability to deliver.  So why rush at it, when the PPP-led government is currently taking all of the heat for Pakistan’s many problems?

Or as columnist Ejaz Haider wrote in reference both to the so-called Memogate scandal and Imran Khan’s argument that his political party is gaining the force of a tsunami, “Let’s also assume the army manages to get rid of the current government by acting as a force-multiplier in combination with sections of the media, the judiciary and the political ‘tsunami’ that’s about to engulf Pakistan. Would the structural problems that keep begetting us these crises disappear?
The answer to these and many more questions is a big no.”

Unlike the 1990s, Pakistan’s chaotic media is far more outspoken now. Nobody can claim they don’t know what may be happening behind the scenes. The  army has been forced to issue two public statements about its intentions – first denying allegations that ISI chief  Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha sought support from Gulf Arab leaders to launch a coup after bin Laden was killed, and then stating that it is not planning to take over. Every word of those statements is parsed and debated on Twitter within hours, or even minutes, of their release.

And while the Urdu-language media is accused of supporting the military, the English-language newspapers have been forthright in their insistence that the democratic process must be respected, whatever their views of the government and president currently in office. “The army has to remember this: a real patriot is the fellow who gets a parking ticket and rejoices that the system works,” wrote Mehreen Zahra-Malik in The News. “Back off boys!” 

Meanwhile, pause to consider the internal situation of the army itself.  For all that it remains a professional and disciplined army, that has not stopped mururs  of discontent about a decision to award an extension to army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in his term of office to 2013.  Whatever course of action he takes, he must balance the need to keep troop morale high (in the face of criticism both domestically and from the United States) while allaying any suspicions among those seeking to rise up the ranks that he might be tempted to dig in beyond 2013.   Nearer term, are questions over the future of the Director-General of the ISI (DG-ISI), Pasha, whose extension to his own term of office expires in March.

“The military itself isn’t without its own set of contradictions,” wrote Najam Sethi in The Friday Times. “The COAS (Kayani) and DG-ISI are both on extensions that remain the subject of disapproval within the rank and file. On top of that, both generals have been found wanting in defending the sovereignty of their own military spaces from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as well as those of the country from the Americans. ”

As if all that is not complicated enough, the very structure of Pakistani society does not lend itself to simple solutions.  The ethnic diversity which prompted Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, to pull away violently in a civil war in 1971, continues to plague the country with Baluch, Pashtun, Sindhis and even the Seraikis of southern Punjab resenting the traditional dominance of Pakistan’s northern Punjab heartland.

On top of that, the tensions over the balance of power between urban versus rural populations which were settled in 19th century Europe by industrialisation and urbanisation have yet to be resolved in South Asia – an oft-0verlooked dynamic true of both India and Pakistan. With the voter majority still in the countryside, no political party can easily escape the need to build up feudal patronage networks, usually financed by corruption, in order to win enough seats in parliament.      

(As writer and columnist Ayesha Siddiqa has discussed in detail, the urban middle classes in Pakistan should not be confused with those who forced through progressive policies in 19th century Europe – having grown rich during past periods of military rule, they tend to be more conservative and more inclined to sympathise with Islamists.  For a historical view of how tensions between urban and rural voters, and between provincial demands and centralising authority, play out in the civilian-military imbalance in Pakistan, read Nadeem Paracha at Dawn.) 

So given all these complications, how do the various players respond? 

The army, logically, should bide its time. In its defence, it says it wants a civilian government which can deliver the kind of governance it believes Pakistan needs: efficient, free of corruption and able to provide the economic growth that would make the country strong.  (Kayani has been clear that one of the biggest threats to Pakistan comes from its weak economy.)  But it has had a tendency in the past to behave tactically rather than strategically (the Kargil war being a case in point) so it remains unclear whether it has the patience to wait it out for the right conditions.

Imran Khan is in a hurry – rather like the tsunami he speaks of. He needs to capitalise on his rising support to strike reasonably soon through early elections.Waiting longer to build his political base, as some have suggested, would expose him to charges that his PTI is becoming more and more like any other party, as it collects new members who have built their political support the old way – through the kind of feudal patronage that once characterised the “rotten boroughs” of English 19th century parliamentary democracy.   

The main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)  led by Nawaz Sharif, is pushing for early elections in the hope that it could still win before Imran Khan’s “tsunami” hits land.  Yet at the same time, Sharif – having been deposed in the 1999 coup- is deeply wary of the military. And the army is deeply wary of him – he has until recently been more outspoken than the PPP in his criticism of the military, and has also challenged it with his calls for peace with India.

The PPP is, if anything, in an even more peculiar quandary. Until the latest crisis, it looked set to lead the first democratically elected government in Pakistan to complete its term of office and hand over to another democratically elected government – a badge it wore with a mix of grim honour and expedient compromise.  Yet Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s decision this week to stand up to the army after years of trying to accommodate it has some asking whether he already senses the end is near.  Go down fighting, according to this view, then the PPP can still claim the mantle of the martyr and recover to fight another day.

This is, as columnist Cyril Almeida suggested in Dawn, is a no-win situation for Pakistan:

“Could this all be a Mexican standoff, where everyone in the circle has a gun to the next person’s head, too afraid to pull the trigger but too scared to lower their weapon? If that’s the case, a negotiated settlement could be reached and the country could limp towards the Senate elections (in March). But as the threats and shouts intensify, as fear and anxiety grow and panic begins to take hold, someone could prematurely pull the trigger. Who survives that bloodbath will only be known after the dust settles.”

The long view? Nobody knows what will happen.  If the atmosphere in Pakistan is particularly feverish right now, that is less because people are expecting something to happen immediately in a rerun the 1990s, and more because it has become such a pressure cooker that only the very reckless would predict the outcome.  In such a scenario, it might perhaps be best for other countries to pay attention to the  “do not disturb” sign on the door.

(File photo of Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani saluting the prime minister)


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I think Myra has done a good bit of homework here. Back in 90’s when the scenario was similiar to what it is now, Army went ahead with Kargil (mis)adventure and used the passions of the people against India to dethrow the governement.

The times have changed with rapid technological advances in the media and communications sector of the economy. Any news pertaining to policy change social and economic domain is known throughout the world (not just in the country) with in seconds.
Back in the 90’s it was said the only real political party was PPP (with some political Authority to boot) while the PML was only a sheriff of the Army and so the real political opponent was the PPP but the real oppponent for the Army (or indeed for any Autocratic power that holds its sway in a nation) in 21st century is free media.
We now see How Imran Khan with his PTI party has fabulously used the Internet and the electronic media to his advantage to build his party based on the pent up frustrations of the people. Back then with state media in its fold and its ability to restrict print press at various levels, the Army could manufacture and create disssent against the Civilian Government while its own failings (which are many) were carefully wrapped under the secret documents in Rawalpindi.
With the Wikileaks revolution combined with Internet, Social media (aka Facebook) and electronic media. It is increasingly difficult for the Army to cover its tracks. The misbehaviour of the Army is reported much widely now and its trail never gets cold so easily.

Myra”The long view? Nobody knows what will happen. If the atmosphere in Pakistan is particularly feverish right now, that is less because people are expecting something to happen immediately in a rerun the 1990s, and more because it has become such a pressure cooker that only the very reckless would predict the outcome”.

Which means, if it were 90’s we could have coolly predicted the Army’s return but not now. In any case, why would the Army step in with economic stagnation and misgovernance and where solutions are hard to find.

Finally it is difficult to prove misgovernance and inefficiency since its a relative term but if youtube shows Army soldiers killing a man on the spot, it will discredit the Army more than nebulous concept of good governance. With the explosion of Facebook and youtube which showed Army’s brutality in no uncertain terms , the middle classes of Pakistan is throughly losing the idea of “Bring back the Army” to solve its intractible problems.

Posted by sensiblepatriot | Report as abusive k.html
How does pakistan produce such excellent authors!!

Posted by sensiblepatriot | Report as abusive

I think I agree almost entirely with Myra here. I would also like to reiterate my comment of 30 Nov in the previous post “Winning the battle losing the war….”.

“NOV 30, 2011
9:29 AM EST
A well thought out post which few will disagree with………………………………………………
I do believe that if there is ever going to be a military take over again, the present time is ideal, its open season on the Pakistani civil establishment. Maybe Imran Khan will be pushed in by the Army as an alternate to a coup.

Posted by DaraIndia”

I think the stage is being set this, perhaps not for a military take over, though one wouldn’t bet on it, but more likely for Imran Khan’s appointment. The irony is that till the last elections he was the one ridiculing the ‘Kings Party’. Today he is wearing those very boots.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

As veteran PML-N politician joins PTI, it is clear there is no stopping the tsunami now. Imran Khan and his party have become a force to be reckoned with not bcoz the establishment supports them, but bcoz their stance on many issues is what the general public find appealing. Is’nt democracy the will of the people?

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

Not true Myra! Mr Haqqani is a pathological liar and his comments are a disrespect for any professional military in the world. The military in Pakistan have never had any contingency plans to intervee and take over the civilian administrattion of the country. Pakistan military leaders have intervened mostly when asked by the civil adminstration to quell peoples unrest and this alone has been the causual factor for military direct intervention and removal of the civilian administrations. The one exception being the take over by the former general Musharaf who was dismissed in a messy manner by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Shareef.

Rex Minor

PS The rationale being that Govts once elected by the people loose the right to use military force against the citizens to keep them in power.

Posted by forbirds | Report as abusive

Not true Myra! Mr Haqqani is a pathological liar and his comments are a disrespect for any professional military in the world. The military in Pakistan have never had any contingency plans to intervee and take over the civilian administrattion of the country. Pakistan military leaders have intervened mostly when asked by the civil adminstration to quell peoples unrest and this alone has been the causual factor for military direct intervention and removal of the civilian administrations. The one exception being the take over by the former general Musharaf who was dismissed in a messy manner by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Shareef.

Rex Minor

PS The rationale being that Govts once elected by the people loose the right to use military force against the citizens to keep them in power.

Posted by forbirds | Report as abusive


“Imran Khan and his party have become a force to be reckoned with not bcoz the establishment supports them, ….”

Correct me if I am wrong but I think by ‘the establishment’ you meant the army. Otherwise, as I see it, the ‘establishment’ would actually be the government of Pakistan.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

Not true Myra Macdonald, military coups are never planned and Pakistan is not an exception. Mr Haqqani is a pathological liar, Pakistan military leaders from the very start of the republic were of the opinion that the military in Pakistan must not take orders from the democraticaly elected case it looses people’s support and require military intervention to suppress domestic unrest. Mr Musharaf intervention was an exception and this was provoked by the then Prime Minister!

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

In Pakistan the term ‘establishment’ refers to the civil and military bureaucrats and includes intelligence services, guys who have the power behind the elected PM or President.
Rather, the current ‘government’ of Pakistan is frightened by the rise in popularity of PTI.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

let us not forget that seventy eight percent of Pakistanis (Galuppol) still believe that military is the best institution they have at present! The ruling as well as the main opposition party have lost the confidence among Pakistan citizens and this is not healthy for a democracy!

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

Here is a nice song: Bk

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Nice link. Now I had a bigger laugh after our fumblings for the last 2 days in our own parliament. The group which created the video should be congratulated. :-)
On a serious note though, The truth is slowly emerging that, with explosion of mass communications and its content, coup’s are no longer that easy and Pakistan has a window of oppurtunity here to embark on pluralistic democratic politics and gradually come out of the quagmire it finds itself in, (in the long term). mplicated-script.html

Posted by sensiblepatriot | Report as abusive

Here is an offering in flow of things:
This one comment on page4, got my attention and here it is with due credit to the writer: Have fun.

FriendsofIndia Jan 1st 2012 1:39 GMT
The absurd barrage of venom against India from the Economist continues now unabated. Don’t you know that you have already repeatedly violated the cardinal law of reporting on India, and insulted India beyond imaginable.

India’s economy is self reliant. We do not need to export to the rest of the world to make our economy to grow at 10 percent. Just imagine, once we start to export, our growth rate will go through the roof, all the way to the North Pole.

Mostly impoortantly, India is the world’s greatest democracy; our democracy contains more souls than your entire populations. Our middle class alone blast your whole countries to smithereens. We shine a leading light to the rest of the world on how to operate the world’s only one-vote-half-a-man democracy. Come enjoy the spectacle of our annual elections. About half of our people are capable of reading even their names, they literally vote for whoever providing them a splendid pre-election 5-rupee meal. With our flowerily decorated meal stalls, such greedy eyes and eager stomachs, our elections are always busy affairs, never mind just about half-a-man counts for each vote.

With Indian democracy, nobody needs to worry, it’s sunshine everyday, everything can be overcome, and nothing cannot be done.

Our hundreds of millions of computer engineers are graduating from the IITs each quarter, they are flooding into our super power software companies like Tata, InfoSys, and Wipro.

India shines while the world declines. And your little island, of course it is drowning not only in its financial deficits but also its education deficits. American and Europe are swimming in their own muddled puddle of debt, Japan is just inhaling the last breath before its final sinking into the sea, and China is imploding as predicted right on schedule. This leaves India, India alone, as the world’s greatest and superest and duperest super power, and its only credible democracy.

Incredible India will automatically resume leadership of the world after this crisis in the US, Japan, and Europe.

Here in Mumbai, there in Delhi, and there again in Pune, India shines while the world declines!

And what are the rest of you in, PIIGS, Bordello, Old Prussia, Chinks, and Yankees? A crisis of course. All, come to sugar daddy, India; we are willing to rush to your help! We got all the jobs in the world, and our dalits are certainly willing to spare their jobs for you. Our prime minister has already pledged $300Billion US dollars of aid, virtually every single drop of dollars in our coffers.

Because we can afford it! India’s Tata has been lording over the world industries by purchasing such Western properties as LRJ and Corus, and making these former money pits a big success. Our Mittal has been overwhelming the world’s steel makers by swallowing up Arcelor. Our mobile phones have been out-talking all other countries by growing 100 million users every quarter. Our architects had designed and finished the world’s largest airport in Delhi in Terminal 2. Our engineers have built the world’s greatest hydro dam. Our road builders had just completed the world’s longest bridge in Mumbai. Our prime minister has been presiding over these big international meetings by sounding our voices over all these heads of all your minor states. Our super aircraft carriers have been patrolling the world’s oceans and scaring all the Ethiopia and Somalian pirates off their pants.

For all these a million reasons, submit to your fate under our Hindu colossus, beg our 5-rupee meal middle classes, bow to our super powers.

Pray for India, we will have pity on you. Jai Hind!

Posted by Matrixx | Report as abusive

I forgot but happy New year to you all.

Posted by Matrixx | Report as abusive

Some informative stuff in this article, however, as with all Western journalists, Myra fails to inform us that the single biggest problem in Pakistan is CORRUPTION.

The public consider every politician in every major party to be corrupt with the exception of Imran Khan. This is why his PTI are so popular with the people and there is hope that if he wins in the election it would break the cycle of power-sharing between the corrupt and the corrupter.

Any journalist or news agency that fails to acknowledge the prime significance of the corruption problem in Pakistan should not be taken seriously.

Posted by HiddenHammer | Report as abusive

This is an interesting piece of article about Imran Khan:  /2012/01/20121272859946334.html

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive