Foreign and Defense Policy

A Colonels’ Coup in Pakistan?

Today’s New York Times has a story about General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief, coming under pressure to step down from subordinates humiliated by last month’s successful American raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. The story speculates about a possible “colonels’ coup” to replace Kayani, which is described as unlikely but not “out of the question.”

While many things in Pakistan aren’t “out of the question,” if history teaches us anything it’s that the odds of junior officers seizing control of the army, and effectively the country, are extremely slim. Simply put, when it comes to chain of command, the Pakistani army has no history of emulating its cousins in Africa, Latin America, or the Mediterranean.

Three previous army chiefs—military dictators Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, and Pervez Musharraf—were forced to step down in part because they had lost the confidence of the powerful corps commanders, a group of about a dozen top generals that defers to the chief but nonetheless operates in a largely consensual manner. Ayub and Yahya both lost wars against India, in 1965 and 1971 respectively. (Though in strictly military terms the 1965 war was a stalemate, the Pakistani army viewed it as a defeat.) Musharraf was eased out after a protest movement by lawyers—amplified by a feisty media that Musharraf himself had fostered—made him so unpopular that the army began to lose face as an institution for backing him.

What does this mean for Kayani? There’s no question that his reputation, and that of the army, has taken a battering over the past six weeks. The bin Laden raid was followed by an audacious assault by Islamist militants on PNS Mehran, a naval base in Karachi, and the murder of a prominent Pakistani journalist, Saleem Shahzad, allegedly by agents from the army’s intelligence wing, Inter-Services Intelligence. (The ISI denies killing Shahzad.) Many of Pakistan’s most prominent journalists and writers are publicly blaming the army for bringing the country to its present pass. Some accuse it of being inept (Abbottabad, PNS Mehran), others of being malignant as well (the Shahzad murder).

That said, there’s no evidence that Kayani has outlived his welcome with the corps commanders, much less that Pakistan’s famously sturdy chain of command is about to break down. It’s quite possible that in the coming weeks public opprobrium turns Kayani into a burden the corps commanders no longer want to carry. But if the past tells us anything, it’s that Pakistan’s army chiefs are deposed by fellow generals, not by angry young colonels.

4 thoughts on “A Colonels’ Coup in Pakistan?

  1. “there’s no evidence that Kayani has outlived his welcome with the corps commanders” – perhaps because this time the generals have been embarrassed as never before and they’re all equally culpable. Getting rid off Kayani would be passing a judgement on themselves – and that would never do! If Zardari had half the balls his reputation in other departments boasts, he would seize this opportunity to rein in the army. Of course, he’s in it just as much given that he was ‘in charge’ and didn’t have a clue. Still, he could try.

  2. The argument that a ‘colonel’s coup’ is unlikely in Pakistan simply because nothing of this nature has happened in the past seems particularly weak. Pakistani army has a relatively short history of only about 60 years and things have changed a lot in the past in the past three decades. While the army very much started as a tightly managed successor institution to the erstwhile British Indian Army, things drastically changed since Gen. Zia started a campaign to make the army more Islamic. The mid and junior level officers – different from Kayani (’71) and the corps commanders, all of whom were commissioned in the early 70′s – are more conservative, wear beards and largely are anti-west. Swathes of armed forces are out and out jehadis who have routinely stood up to their superiors, balked at conducting actions in Waziristan and leaked information to extremists (see Saleem Shahzad’s last dispatches to get the current flavor). So, yes, ‘anything’ is indeed possible! Moreover, ‘Colonel’s coups’ are not just the stuff of Latin America, ‘the Mediterranean’ and other far-off places; such happened in Afghanistan and Iran in the 1970s and looking further back similar treachery is very much in the fabric of the subcontinent as well.

  3. To Dhume: I agree with most of the analysis and specially that:

    ‘if history teaches us anything it’s that the odds of junior officers seizing control of the army, and effectively the country, are extremely slim.’

    The military heirarchy and the vertical command structures leave little space for Colonel level adventurism. There is no credible evidence of any large scale Jehadi infilitration of mili. ranks. Eevn as a worse case scenario, such an uprising at lower ranks would result in a localised incident which would be swiftly put down by the mili. high command.

    In any case the NYT article has certain perplexing details. The more well known commentator on Mili. affairs is one Brig. Shoukat Qadir and not Shoukat Qadri. I have met Jane a few times and need to check this out with her.

    To Vicarious: To realistically wager that what ‘happened in Afghanistan and Iran in the 1970s’ can transpire in Pakistan is to completley disregard the political/structural context of the Saur revolution in Afghanistan and Irans Islamic revolution. In both these instances the miliatries aligned with populist political forces to overthrow incumbent regimes. And in both the instances the militaries ushered in political forces (PDPA in Afghanistan and Khomeini in Iran).

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