Pakistan's civilian government, led by the Pakistan People's Party, has long been an irritant to the country's generals. President Asif Ali Zardari runs a corrupt and inept administration and has been far too willing to cozy up to Washington. Husain Haqqani, until November 2011, was Pakistan's controversial envoy to the United States. He has been a thorn in the side of General Headquarters since publishing his book Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military in 2005 while at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. However, the Pakistani Army swallowed its contempt for the government and such representatives as Haqqani because the generals had very little choice in the matter -- at least, that is, until now.
One reason is that, after nearly a decade of living under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistanis are wary of military rule. The Army, too, has suffered a series of beatings to its reputation after nearly a decade of unpopular military cooperation with the United States and even more unpopular operations on Pakistan's soil. The Army knows that another military government would be a tough sell.
Another reason is that, while the Army made much of the sanguinary NATO strike that killed 24 soldiers in November, both it and the ISI -- Pakistan's most notorious intelligence agency -- are still smoldering over the humiliating facts that Osama Bin Laden enjoyed sanctuary in a cantonment town a short distance from the premier Pakistan Military Academy and that the United States could conduct a unilateral raid to kill and extract him before the Army even had a clue. Thus, the Army has been forced to work behind the scenes and through other institutions, such as the judiciary, to keep this government on his heels.
Third, no matter how detestable Zardari, Inc. may be to the men in khaki, they have had no real alternative until now. The primary rival to Zardari and his PPP is former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his political fiefdom, the Pakistan Muslim League. The Army is scarcely more able to stomach a Sharif return to power after he sacked one Army chief (Gen. Jehangir Karamat) and tried to sack another (Musharraf). Karamat, a true democrat, retired without resistance; however, when Sharif tried to oust Musharraf, the Army rolled in and toppled his government.
But the Army's luck is changing along with that of Imran Khan, whose political fortunes have shifted in recent months. For years, the lothario cricket star turned politician could barely win his own seat. However, with what Pakistanis suspect is support from the military and ISI, Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has successfully wooed numerous turncoat politicians and their swollen vote banks. Khan has asked politicians who are now joining PTI to vacate their current elected seats in the parliament both as a means of ensuring that they do not reverse course but also as a ploy to bring about fresh elections earlier than 2013, when general polls are to be held. So far, PTI does not have the numbers needed to bring down the government, but politics in Pakistan is about coalitions and vote banks. This is a long shot, but not impossible with ever more self-interested politicians from other parties flocking his way.
Khan holds views that align well with those of the Army. He has roused the sentiments of Pakistan's masses by calling for a restructuring -- if not outright cessation -- of military cooperation with Washington. He supports the Afghan Taliban, believes that Pakistan's armed forces should not be operating against Pakistani militants, and espouses a strong -- if absurdly pandering and unrealistic -- position on corruption. His views on sharia and blasphemy are chameleon-like. He is anything to anyone.
Not only does the Army have a palatable political alternative to either the PPP or PML-N -- it now has a mechanism to bring about the downfall of this government: Pakistan's interventionist Supreme Court. The current chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has long loathed Zardari because the latter opposed his reinstatement following his dismissal by then President Musharraf. The Supreme Court also rubbished a constitutional amendment -- the "National Reconciliation Ordinance" (NRO) -- that dropped various criminal charges against Zardari and his wife, Benazir Bhutto, along with other PPP members.