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.
“The military does not have any constitutional options to take action. All its options now are extraconstitutional,” Mr. Nawaz said, “whereas the prime minister does have the constitution on his side and can appoint and remove officials at will.”
The prime minister has legal power to fire the chiefs of the army and spy agency.
The government’s relationship with the judiciary is also fraught with tension.
On Tuesday, the Pakistani Supreme Court warned that it could dismiss Mr. Gilani for defying its orders in a corruption investigation.
Some analysts say the military is colluding with the courts in a bid to oust Mr. Zardari.
“The civilian-military crisis in Pakistan is coming to a head,” said Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
“And while Gen. Kayani may have no interest in a military coup, it seems that the army may be working in tandem with the Supreme Court to oust the Zardari government.”
The high court has no power to impeach the president. That authority rests with parliament, where Mr. Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party holds a majority.
Ms. Fair of Georgetown University said the Obama administration “needs to see that the military is working through the courts and the media to bring this government down through means that are extraconstitutional, but which nonetheless have a veneer of constitutionality.”
U.S. officials are anxiously monitoring the situation in Pakistan, where the stability of the nuclear-armed nation is necessary for support in the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
“We expect that all parties will behave in a manner that respects Pakistan’s constitution, democratic processes and the rule of law,” said Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman.
There is little support for another military coup in Pakistan, said Ms. Fair, who recently visited the South Asian nation.
“There is no stomach for the army to return,” she said.
Pakistan’s last military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, has announced his intention to return to Pakistan this month to launch his parliamentary election campaign. Few think he stands a real chance of winning. He was forced to step down from the post of president in 2008.
Elections are scheduled for next year.
Ms. Curtis said the current crisis could be defused and civilian rule preserved if Mr. Zardari calls early elections. The president has been under pressure to hold early elections in the aftermath of the Memogate affair.
The scandal erupted after Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani-American businessman, said that Husain Haqqani, then Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, asked him to deliver a letter from the Pakistani president to Adm. Mike Mullen, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The letter sought U.S. support to prevent a feared coup after U.S. commandos killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani military garrison town in May.
Mr. Haqqani and Mr. Zardari have denied any role in the scandal. Mr. Haqqani resigned and returned to Pakistan, where he faces an investigation and fears for his life.
“What the army is trying to do is to terrify Haqqani and get him to implicate Zardari,” said Ms. Fair.
Over the weekend, a group of South Asia scholars wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, expressing concern for Mr. Haqqani’s safety.
Questions have been raised about the manner in which the case is proceeding and whether due process of law is being followed, they said.
Asma Jehangir, a prominent human rights lawyer, recently quit as Mr. Haqqani’s attorney, expressing doubts over the impartiality of the commission set up to investigate the case.
“Significant segments of the Pakistani media have already judged Haqqani to be guilty of treason, which could inspire religious extremists to take the law into their own hands, as they did with Taseer and Bhatti,” the South Asia scholars wrote.
Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, and Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minorities minister, were assassinated in separate attacks last year.