Supporters of Tahir-ul-Qadri gather at an anti-government march in Islamabad on Tuesday. (FAROOQ NAEEM/ / AFP)
ISLAMABAD — The Army has assumed security responsibility of the sensitive “Red Zone” in Pakistan’s capital as opposition forces camped out in the capital enter it demanding the government’s resignation.
Some 55,000 supporters of populist opposition politician Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice Party (PTI), and cleric Tahir ul Qadri’s of the Pakistan People’s Movement (PAT), have been in the capital since the night of Aug.14. Both demand the resignation of the government on unproven vote-rigging allegations in last year’s election, and claims of widespread corruption and mismanagement.
As reports of isolated clashes with the police emerge, and the fear of bloodshed increases, analysts are concerned the military could stage a coup to restore security.
Analyst, author and expert on the Pakistani military, former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, Brian Cloughley, is not optimistic, but does not anticipate a coup.
“I doubt very much there will be another military coup, but there are an awful lot of people who would welcome one, and [Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif is running scared. And when frightened, politicians are required to take action they usually make terrible mistakes.”
He concedes, however, “If there is total breakdown of law and order in the country, then there will be no alternative but for the Army to take over.”
Sharif met Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif earlier today to discuss security matters, including the current protests and ongoing progress in combating the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), its allies and affiliates.
The Pakistan military claims it killed 48 militants today in air raids and artillery strikes in Waziristan.
After the meeting, the Army’s 111 Brigade moved to take up positions in the Red Zone, the location of administrative and government offices as well as key foreign embassies. The 111 Brigade, which is under the command of X Corps, has in the past been used to protect the capital, but also to remove civilian governments.
They joined the police and thousand of paramilitary Frontier Constabulary paramilitary personnel, who were called up last week by the Interior minister.
The capital has been fortified with barbed wire, shipping containers and even trenches in an effort to prevent the protestors from approaching sensitive areas.
Pakistan Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif told Bloomberg last week that he did not see the possibility of a military takeover, and that government-military relations were good.
Analyst Haris Khan of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank dispute’s the minister’s claims.
“The rift has been partially caused by the way Sharif has addressed the Taliban insurgency, but this has been widened by the prime minister’s refusal to allow retired [Army Chief] Pervez Musharraf to leave Pakistan following his indictment on 31 March on high treason charges related to events in 2007 when, as president, Musharraf imposed emergency rule,” he said.
Khan says the military and Sharif are deadlocked over this issue as Sharif will not back down, and the military will not allow Musharraf to be convicted.
The military has also been angered by government indecision on combating the Pakistani Taliban, something that only changed after the June terrorist attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, after which the military decided to launch an all-out assault on the TTP and its allies.
Though the government could still be removed, Cloughley does not think the military will take control directly as “the Army chief doesn’t want to, so if it has to happen he’ll probably ask the president to take over,” he said.
“This would be unconstitutional, but I think the High Court would be on his side,” he added.
If this were to occur, Khan said it might be tacitly welcomed internationally.
“If there is another Army takeover what would D.C. and Western countries do? I think the US and the West will have to ask themselves if they can afford to isolate Pakistan,” he said.
“Being the world’s only nuclear armed Muslim state next to Afghanistan gives Pakistan a strong bargaining position.”
However, Mansoor Ahmed of Islamabad’s Qauaid-e-Azam University’s Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, says, “The present political instability with the apparent aim of dislodging the incumbent government will set a bad precedent for the country’s political future.”
It would not only further derail the fragile economic recovery, but there are still international concerns for Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent capabilities.
“Any extra constitutional change in the political dispensation of Pakistan coupled with a potential breakdown of law and order at a time when the Army is engaged in counter-terrorism military operations will provide fuel to the detractors and skeptics who might be tempted yet again to question the safety and security of the country’s strategic and nuclear assets, in spite of repeated reassurances and international confidence in existing command-and-control systems instituted by the [National Command Authority],” he said.■