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.