Coup rumblings in Islamabad

The firing of the Pakistani Army chief triggers unusual troop movement

The most serious threat to government and military stability in Pakistan in the 1990s unfolded Tuesday Oct. 12 between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Army Chief of Staff Pervaiz Musharraf - as military troops surrounded the airport, TV facilities, and the prime minister's residence.

The apparent trigger: Mr. Sharif, increasingly under political attack at home, replaced General Musharraf as head of the Army while Musharraf was on a trip to Sri Lanka. The move provided the most dramatic example to date of steady rumors of trouble between the Pakistan Army and the executive office.

Relations between the two men were increasingly strained since the end of the 15-week conflict between Pakistan and India in June and July. Musharraf stated at the end of the conflict that Pakistan troops had aided Mujahideen rebels, a position steadily denied by Sharif during the conflict. Intelligence sources stated that the conflict was orchestrated by the Army - even during the historic peace talks between India and Pakistan last February - causing ongoing questions among security experts on who is in power in Pakistan, a new nuclear state.

Regional experts are also concerned about a rise of Islamic extremists in Pakistan, and increasing number of Islamically oriented hard-liners in the military, which has long been run by Western educated professional soldiers. In the last 10 days, Sharif had challenged religious militant groups and the leaders of the Islamic madrassa schools - blaming them for violence that resulted in the deaths of scores of Shiite Muslims. Sharif has been testing the military since coming to power in 1997.

Yet at press time, it was not clear whether the power struggle is yet another high stakes game by Sharif, who has replaced almost any public figure who opposed him, or whether it is the final straw in that game - with the military rising against Sharif's attempt to replace Musharraf.

Two weeks ago, Musharraf's term of office expired, and Sharif intended to replace him, sources say, but was unable to - a circumstance that led to a US warning on Sept. 20 of a possible coup.

In the past two years Sharif has dismissed the president of Pakistan, the chief judge of the Supreme Court, and the previous head of the Pakistan armed forces. He has been increasingly unpopular among many rank-and-file Pakistanis, both in and out of the Army, for withdrawing troops that had successfully crossed India's line of control in Kashmir last spring. Sharif, who met President Clinton during the Kargil war, and is thought to be relying on American aid in obtaining a $280 million IMF loan and other monetary gains, has found himself nearly alone.

Sources in New Delhi say the possible coup has been in the wind for several days. Last week, the six core commanders in the Pakistan Army had a met to discuss contingency plans - including a military coup - for a possible replacement of Musharraf. The plan was then leaked by two of the six commanders, who were then themselves replaced by Musharraf. "There has never been a coup attempt in Pakistan without a prior meeting of these six men," says Kalim Bahabur, a security expert at the Jawalharlal University in New Delhi.

The power struggle comes two days after neighboring India voted in national elections for the party of Atal Behari Vajpyaee, the prime minster of a Hindu nationalist party who gained enormous popularity in India during the Kargil war last spring. The ostensible replacement for Musharraf, Gen. Zia Uddin is reported to have been the head of the Pakistan secret service agency, known as the ISI. If he takes over the Army, it will be the first time in Pakistan history that an intelligence official held the reins of the military.

At press time, soldiers were also seen taking over the houses of several top ministers - including Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz and Information Minister Mushahid Hussein. In southern Karachi and in the Northwest Frontier province, the Army also took over television stations and the governors' residences, according to witnesses who saw the soldiers entering the buildings and surrounding them with armed guards.

PAKISTAN: A BRIEF HISTORY *Pakistan was founded, along with India, when British colonial rule ended on Aug. 14, 1947. The two nations fought their first war over the disputed region of Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state.

1965: Second war with India, again over Kashmir.

Oct. 1958: Gen. Mohammad Ayub Khan seizes power in a coup. He resigned in 1969, turning over power to Gen. Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan.

1971: Third war with India over India's support for independence for Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.

1972: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People's Party, takes office as elected president.

July 1977: Mr. Bhutto is overthrown in a coup by Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq and executed in 1979.

Aug. 1988: President Zia ul-Haq dies in a plane crash. Elections in November bring Bhutto's daughter, Benazir Bhutto, to power as prime minister. Ms. Bhutto is dismissed in 1990 on corruption charges but reelected in 1993.

Feb. 1997: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is elected in a landslide. He also later faces accusations of corruption.

1998: India and Pakistan test nuclear weapons.

1999: India and Pakistan skirmish after militants supported by Pakistan occupy mountain positions in the Kargil region of Kashmir. After two months, the militants withdraw.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.