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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 22, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 42

Here We Go Again
After grabbing power for the fifth time in 52 years, Pakistan's generals may put in place a civilian government sooner rather than later
By ROBIN PAUL AJELLO and AYAZ GUL Islamabad

main pakistan indonesia india malaysia Coups were supposed to be a thing of the past in Pakistan. Or so it may have seemed at one time to prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Thanks to a strong mandate and trench-war tactics, Sharif had made himself the most powerful civilian Pakistani leader since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the nation's first elected PM. Which made his ouster on Oct. 12 something of a shock - and a reason to celebrate for Pakistanis, who have grown weary of watching their nation commit slow-motion suicide.

The following day, army chief of staff Gen. Pervez Musharraf went on state television to justify the bloodless coup. He issued a litany of complaints against the government - the collapse of state institutions, an ailing economy, deepening divides in society and, the cardinal sin, government attempts to "politicize and destabilize" the army. Musharraf spoke with particular passion about how the army was the only viable institution left in the country, and a vital source of national pride. "My repeated and sincere advice and counsel to the government was never heeded," he said. "I've taken this decision with the supreme national interest in mind and as a last resort."

The general made no mention of holding fresh elections. But he later contacted various civilian leaders and made no move to dissolve Parliament. Instead, he appealed to the patriotic sentiments of the public, assuring Pakistanis that everything was under control. "The armed forces will defend this country to the last drop of their blood," said the general. He added: "Let no outside force think it can take advantage of the situation prevailing in Pakistan." In Washington, as elsewhere, officials expressed concern. Even as India put its border troops on alert, newly re-elected Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said New Delhi was prepared to talk to "any establishment in Pakistan."

And so for the fifth time in 52 years, the military dismissed an elected government. The coup came after months of feuding between Sharif and Musharraf, who was appointed last year after Sharif asked his predecessor to resign for proposing that the country needed a national security council to be governed effectively.

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Special Report: People's Will?
Coalitions, caucuses, even a coup - democracy in Asia is getting more complicated and messy. Are the people's demands still getting through?

Pakistan: Here We Go Again After grabbing power for the fifth time in 52 years, Pakistan's generals may put in place a civilian government sooner rather than later

Timeline The ups and downs of Pakistan's recent history

Indonesia Win or lose, B.J. Habibie stands in the shadows

Malaysia Speculation continues over the election date

Precedent Can Anwar run for Parliament from Prison?

India Will the new government survive?

Into Thin Air How to sell a candidate

Vajpayee The Indian PM remains beholden to his Hindu nationalist benefactors. Yet increasingly he is being his own man

Viewpoint India elected an old PM with new friends

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For weeks rumors of either an army-backed political challenge or a change of the army chief had gripped Islamabad. When Musharraf was asked in late September about his political future he stated emphatically: "I will complete my tenure [as army chief]." Two days later Sharif's government announced that Musharraf's term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee would be extended by two years. At the time, officials said that should quell "rumors about a change in the army leadership by the government."

But two weeks after that, the government replaced Gen. Musharraf with Lt.-Gen. Ziauddin Butt, chief of the Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI), which presides over Pakistan's nuclear programs. At the time of his sacking, Musharraf was flying in from Colombo after attending the 50-year celebrations of the Sri Lankan army. But his second-in-command, Gen. Muhammad Aziz, reacted swiftly and decisively. In less than two hours, troops had taken control of the prime minister's residence, of state-controlled electronic media, airports and Sharif's home in Lahore. They placed Sharif under house arrest, as well as most of his associates in Lahore and Karachi. Sharif's brother, Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab, was whisked away from his residence but not before he was administered some light slaps by a military official sent to arrest him.

So ended Nawaz Sharif's 32-month rule. "Sharif made many promises to many people: businessmen, the middle-classes, women, old people, the army, the judiciary, India, the U.S. - everyone and everybody," says Imran Asghar, who runs a posh hotel in Islamabad. "But he failed to deliver to each one of them. No wonder people are celebrating that he is out of power." The immediate euphoria was not universal. Many question the wisdom of military-backed change. "We are back to square one," says Aamera Jamil, who runs an organization that protects the rights of vulnerable groups. "The vicious cycle of military coups and civilian rules is back again. It is a sad day."

Yet there is a general consensus that Sharif had it coming. In recent months a Grand Democratic Alliance was formed that included former PM Benazir Bhutto, aspiring leader Imran Khan and various fundamentalist Muslim groups. Its sole aim:to oust Sharif. For the most part, the coup was sparked by Sharif's betrayal of his army chief. "It was not even a year ago that Gen. Musharraf was chosen by Sharif as his man," says political scientist Naveed Ahsan. "The general stood by him and did much to deliver to Sharif. The coup appears to have been caused by the precipitous actions of the Sharif government."

Indeed, Musharraf, a decorated soldier in his own right, was widely perceived as being a Sharif man. Musharraf dismissed his predecessor's idea of a national security council and took great pains to assert that the army obeyed civilian orders. Under his command, the military helped the government root out corruption, identifying, say, schools built with state money that existed only on paper.

The army chief also assigned large numbers of troops to help the government detect electricity theft and govern the hugely mismanaged Water and Power Distribution Agency, which officials say was taking down the whole economy. In strife-stricken Karachi, the army set up anti-terrorism courts under direct orders from Sharif who wanted to administer quick justice to terrorists. (After two hangings and much controversy the courts were disbanded when they were struck down as unconstitutional.)

But the goodwill between the Sharif government and the military went bad when war broke out earlier this year between Indian troops and Pakistan-backed infiltrators in the Kargil region of Kashmir. When Islamabad came under increasing international pressure to end the crisis, Sharif flew to Washington and agreed to withdraw. The deal played badly in the army, which decorated some of those killed in Kargil with Nishan-e-Haider, Pakistan's highest military award.

The generals saw Kargil as a brilliant military maneuver - the first time, they thought, that they had put the Indians in a strategic bind and inflicted major casualties. "Kargil has been a huge success," Musharraf said two weeks ago. Asked if he had personally ordered the withdrawal, the general left no doubt about where he stood. "If I'd done this," he said, "I'd have lost the right to be army chief."

The Sharif government's view of Kargil was utterly different. In a July address to the nation Sharif said the withdrawal had saved the region from a "major upheaval." This conflict of views also played itself out in an ugly blame-game in the press; columnists aligned with the government openly asked Musharraf to resign because, in their view, he had contrived the Kargil operation without informing Sharif.

This seriously irked the army. For one thing the allegation that Kargil was instituted above the head of the civilian government was first made by India. For another, the generals saw it as a blatant attempt to blame on the army an operation that the generals insist Sharif knew all about. Adding fuel to the fire, the Americans recently warned the army against extra-constitutional change. Washington's finger-wagging came right after a hasty meeting between Sharif's brother Shahbaz Sharif and Strobe Talbot, the U.S. deputy secretary of state. The generals saw Washington's comments as an attempt by Sharif to involve the U.S. in Pakistan's internal affairs.

While all of this helped poison the government's relations with the armed forces, Sharif's attempts to manipulate the army's internal politics added insult. For instance, Sharif wanted a loyalist to take charge of the Rawalpindi Corps, which, because of its proximity to Islamabad, has traditionally been used in coups. Sensing danger, Musharraf moved or demanded the resignations of pro-Sharif commanders. Seeing he had been out-foxed, Sharif sacked Musharraf in his absence. But the army chief had obviously put a contingency plan in place - and the moment Sharif made his move that plan went into effect with surgical precision.

A high-ranking army officer told Asiaweek that Musharraf had no choice but to launch a coup. "The proposed chief Ziauddin would have had no moral legitimacy to handle an army [in which] all the commanders owed their allegiance to Gen. Musharraf," he says. "He would have had to install his own men, which would have sown irreconcilable dissension in the ranks. Either way, the army would have ceased to function as a viable institution."

However, in their zeal to save the army's professional integrity and the country's future, Musharraf and his top brass may have over-extended themselves. For now it is their problem to deliver all the things they accuse the Sharif government of failing to do. Economic growth is expected to fall to 3% from 5.3% last year, inflation is in the double digits, and foreign reserves are equal to just six weeks of imports. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund, which only resumed lending earlier this year, may be inclined to turn off the money tap again.

The military, which has managed to keep its hands off the tiller since 1988, is understandably leery of openly wielding power. For that reason, it may install a civilian government sooner rather than later. Who would lead it? Already a few names are being bandied about, including senior members of Sharif's own Pakistan Muslim League party. With civilians in charge, the military could go back to operating behind the scenes.

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