Did US help head off Pakistani military coup

Last month, I wrote about "Trouble Brewing in Pakistan" as former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif threatened to lead a march of his supporters to the capitol in order to force current Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari to reinstate the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who had been ousted by former President Musharraf.

Word is now leaking out that this confrontation almost led to a collapse of the civilian government and a takeover by the military.

David Ignatius:

The crisis began in late February when the Zardari-backed Supreme Court ruled that Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, the chief minister of Punjab, could not hold office. The governor of Punjab, also a Zardari loyalist, then seized control of that powerful province -- in what Pakistani commentators saw as a putsch by the president against his chief rival.

The lawyers' movement began its march on March 12, pledging to occupy Islamabad until the government restored Chaudhry to his post. Zardari sent a police force known as the Rangers into the streets of Lahore, apparently hoping to intimidate Sharif and the marchers. But Sharif evaded the police and joined the protesters as they headed north toward Islamabad.

Kiyani then faced the moment of decision. According to U.S. and Pakistani sources, Zardari asked the army chief to stop the march and protect Islamabad. Kiyani refused, after discussing the dilemma with his friend Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, Kiyani called Sharif and told him to return home to Lahore, according to one source. And he called the leader of the lawyers' movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, and told him to halt in the city of Gujranwala and wait for a government announcement.

Pressure on Zardari was also building within his People's Party. According to a U.S. official, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani told the president on the night of March 15 that he would resign if Chaudhry wasn't reinstated. (Zardari's camp says it was only a rumor of resignation.) In any event, Gillani went on television at 5 the next morning to announce that the former chief justice would return. The crisis was over.

Pakistan has 70 nuclear weapons or thereabouts. There is every indication that those weapons are safe and that responsible officials have control of them (There have even been reports that the US is helping to guard them. We already give Pakistan massive help in keeping them safe.) Sharif, who heads the conservative Muslim League party, is a corrupt and dangerous politician who is angling for Zardari's job. Other opportunities may present themselves that could find Sharif pushing the envelope once again.

And, of course, Pakistan has its own terrorst problem that is only growing worse. While it may be too much to expect Pakistan to be have a stable government, we can hope that the parties involved will refrain from deliberately trying to destablize the situation every chance they get.


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