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Opinion

Pakistan's real battle: government vs. Army

Though the situation in Swat Valley is improving, the military's success is upsetting Pakistan's fragile internal balance of power.

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Historically, military leaders have been able to capitalize on situations such as this, when Islamabad's ability to maintain law and order slips away. In 1958, Gen. Ayub Khan toppled the civilian government amid unrestrained violence in Baluchistan. And in 1999, after a decade of rampant corruption and intense fighting in Karachi, Gen. Pervez Musharraf and his Army seemed like the only force that could restore order.

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Today, the credibility of the civilian government is similarly low.

First, approval ratings for President Asif Ali Zardari hover around 20 percent. His government is proving ineffectual against the economic crisis, failed to provide relief for the Swat refugees, or to rebuild the villages to which they will soon return, and is plagued with allegations of corruption and of being hamstrung by inter-party fighting.

Second, Islamabad may simply be on the wrong side of history when the Taliban is defeated, having been unable to stop them from infiltrating Swat and then having officially handed the territory over to them.

These trends are enough to tilt things in the Army's favor. But as Islamabad's star is setting, the Army's is rising. Plaudits for the victory over the Taliban will be awarded to the troops; approval of the Army grows with every recaptured village.

And beyond public approval, the Army's power in real terms is also increasing. Washington nearly doubled its promise of $400 million in military aid to $700 million recently, though it also increased civilian aid. The Army is also reportedly expanding its stockpile of nuclear weapons, which are of little use for counterinsurgency.

For the time being, the Army and the civilian government appear to be working together against a common enemy. However, it is worth remembering that the Army only started operations in Swat in earnest after it was attacked several times by the Taliban. The extent to which the Army is doing the civilian government's bidding is unclear. It would not be surprising, given the sudden shift in the balance of power in Pakistan, if Islamabad were no longer calling the shots.

The Army is unlikely to march straight from Swat to the capital. For now anyway, they are stepping up operations in Waziristan. But the end of the battle with the Taliban will be the beginning of the war for Islamabad. To survive, the civilian government will need to start focusing on its own "right war" – its dangerous power struggle with the Army.

Kathryn Allawala works at Foreign Affairs magazine.

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