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December 3rd, 2010, by James Blake

James Blake

With Pakistan’s government struggling to resolve an increasingly volatile conflict in the economic hub of Karachi, there is a real and growing possibility of a military coup taking place.

Over the past twelve months, Karachi has been consumed by sectarian, criminal, and ethnic violence. Over 1300 people have died, more than 160 of these in the past month alone. The majority of the violence has ethnicity at its root, with a recent influx of Pashtun migrants fleeing floods and military operations in northwest Pakistan clashing with the existing community. But there is also a growing threat of radical Islamist terrorism, with extremist groups including Laskhar-e-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Toiba deepening their presence in the city. With ethnic and sectarian tensions already running high, a terrorist campaign against particular communities in Karachi could easily provide the spark to ignite a serious conflict.

What happens in Karachi has serious ramifications for the entire country. Most estimates suggest that the city drives Pakistan’s struggling economy, perhaps up to 30% of national GDP. Over the past month, Western businesses have begun to leave the city on the grounds that it is no longer safe or sustainable to be there. It is likely others will follow. This crisis is driving the prospect of political change more than any other.

The people call for change

In recent months, politicians, including most senior members of the MQM, which is part of the national coalition with the President’s Pakistan’s People Party (PPP), has called for the military to intervene.

It seems that over recent months, President Asif Zardari has started to react to the pressure. Although General Kayani has broadly supported Zardari, he has begun to adopt a far more aggressive stance.

In late September, Kayani met with Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani, to discuss the government’s ineffectual response to the flooding in July and August and the ongoing charges of corruption against senior members of the Pakistan government. The local press reported that the general asked the president to dismiss members of the cabinet, but Zardai refused. Kayani’s demands strongly suggest that he is growing increasingly impatient with Zadari.

The Supreme Court is also exerting pressure on Zardari and his government. Chief Justice Chaudhry is attempting to rescind the constitutional immunity Zardari enjoys as president. In September, the court ¬¬decided to ask Switzerland to reopen corruption cases against Zardari. He and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, were convicted by a Swiss court in a $15m money-laundering case in 2003.

It is unlikely that the Supreme Court will succeed. But such allegations and a widespread perception that the president is tainted by corruption is a substantial electoral liability for both Zadari and the PPP. This erosion of Zadari’s political legitimacy may have the reciprocal effect of conferring legitimacy upon any future coup attempt.

A general under pressure

In years gone by, the military would most likely have been less patient in replacing an unpopular government. Its current restraint is most likely because of external considerations, which makes unilateral military action more difficult.

Its most important concern is Pakistan’s reliance on international financial support, particularly from the US. American financial aid to the civilian government, as well and for the military as it attempts to tackle terrorism, adds up to around $9.5 billion. This is crucial in enabling the Pakistani government to respond to rebuilding the country following the flooding, and to combat the ongoing insurgency in the tribal areas. The money gives the US sufficient leverage over Pakistan to influence Kayani’s political moves.

Another consideration is the military’s domestic and international reputation. Strategically there is little point in Kayani sanctioning a coup, when the army can exert a high degree of influence from behind the scenes, particularly on defence and security policy. Meanwhile Kayani is unwilling to put the army into a position where it becomes directly accountable for attempting to resolve the country’s problems.

But, with the situation in Karachi deteriorating, Kayani cannot afford to wait too long. The city is key in the country’s economic future and for foreign investment. Its breakdown into civil violence would threaten Pakistan’s overall economic stability, its military campaign against terrorists and the flood relief effort.

Pakistan’s army is also volatile and many of its younger members are disillusioned with what they perceive to be a dependent relationship with the US. A number of these members have reportedly forged strong personal relationships with retired members of the military and Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, the Inter Intelligence Services (ISI). Some talk suggests a failure to act soon could cause a more radical arm of the army to split and conduct a coup without Kayani’s direction. While there is no evidence to suggest that this will happen any time soon, it shows why it is in Kayani’s interests to show decisive leadership.

If civil conflict breaks out in Karachi, which is looking increasingly likely, the government will be unable to respond to the crisis and Kayani will be forced to act and, at least temporarily, install a military government. Kayani and the army simply cannot afford to lose Karachi.

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