- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fears of a coup in Pakistan increased Wednesday when the military warned of “potentially grievous consequences” after the prime minister criticized the army chief and the head of the country’s spy agency.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani responded immediately by firing Defense Secretary Naeem Khalid Lodhi, a retired lieutenant general. He accused Mr. Lodhi of “gross misconduct and illegal action” that created a misunderstanding that brought the army’s rebuke.

The military, in a statement, warned Mr. Gilani of “serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences,” after he criticized army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, in an interview with a Chinese news website.

Gen. Kayani has called an emergency meeting of top military commanders for Thursday.

Generals and politicians share a tense relationship in Pakistan, which has been ruled by four military dictatorships since independence in 1947.

Those relations were strained further during the so-called “Memogate” scandal that centers on an unsigned letter sent to the Pentagon in May, seeking U.S. help to check the military’s powers and prevent a coup. President Asif Ali Zardari’s government denies any role in the affair.

This week, Mr. Gilani accused Gen. Kayani and Gen. Pasha of violating the constitution when they submitted statements to Pakistan’s Supreme Court in connection with an investigation into the scandal. They said the memo was genuine and part of a plot to undermine the army.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, contends that the military is quietly taking control of the government.

“We are seeing the gradual development of Pakistan’s fifth military dictatorship,” he said.

“There will probably be no coup, nor single dictator. Rather, the [army] corps commanders are taking control behind the scenes of all major decisions,” said Mr. Riedel, who led an interagency review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan for the White House in the early days of the Obama administration.

“A civilian regime will survive, but only as a cosmetic cover to army rule,” he added.

Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, said, “It looks as if the relationship between the civilian government and the military is tumbling very badly out of control.”

Mr. Gilani later Wednesday denied there was any threat to the government and said it was standing by the military, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported.

“The civilian government is trying to feel out just how much it can push the army,” said Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University.

Mr. Nawaz said a confrontation would not help either the military or the civilian government.

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