A Colonels' Coup in Pakistan?

The New York Times dropped a bombshell when it reported that Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Kiyani is facing a rebellion among the rank-and-file. A "colonels' coup" might be on the cards, according to the newspaper. Is that really the case? And what will be the line of action of the supposedly anti-American officers after deposing their chief?

As they say, when there's smoke, there's fire. But we don't know the extent of combustion. And if the supply of firewood is enough to keep it burning. What we do know, however, is that General Kiyani has come under increasing pressure from his commanders and officers after the May 2 raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in northern Pakistan. If that was not enough, he -- and his institution -- is no longer considered a holy cow in the Pakistani media. After the brazen terrorist attack on a naval base in Karachi, Pakistani media has started questioning the SOPs of the military. And then there was the murder of Saleem Shahzad, a prominent journalist, who some say was killed by the ISI, Pakistan's premier military intelligence agency.

This, and the increasing criticism by the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who currently heads the largest opposition group, prompted the military to issue a defensive statement.

It said about the criticism,

This is an effort to drive a wedge between the Army, different organs of the State and more seriously, the people of Pakistan whose support the Army has always considered vital for its operations against terrorists. COAS noted that in order to confront the present challenges, it is critical to stand united as a Nation. Any effort to create divisions between important institutions of the Country is not in our national interest. The participants agreed that all of us should take cognizance of this unfortunate trend and put an end to it.

Pakistani press and Mr. Sharif have shown relative constraint after the statement was issued. All is, however, not well in Pakistan. Common Pakistanis, who have always supported the military, have grown wary of it. The most anti-American populace thinks of it as an extension of American imperialism -- their serfs, to be precise. Others are suspicious of the inaction of the military where it is unable to stop the constant violation of Pakistan's sovereignty by American drone strikes.

It is only natural that some of this anger boils over to the officer corps, where one brigadier became so infuriated that he confronted Kayani during a briefing about military's dealings with America. The barrage of unfriendly statements from Washington, especially from Congress, is only adding fuel to fire, as are the threats of stopping civil and military aid.

Serving officers can't voice their anger, but this is not a problem for those who have already left the barracks. "Americans need us more than we need them. Life would become difficult for them in Afghanistan if we stop cooperating with them. Casualties might increase and so will the expenditures on the war campaign," a retired military official told me in a commanding tone. "How will they explain the additional spending of billions of dollars to their people if we block the supply lines from Pakistan? Isn't their economy already in peril?" he asked.

There is only one example of a rebellion among the officers corps when it lead to the resignation of the military chief and some of his top commanders. It happened in 1971, after Pakistan lost its eastern wing to India and thousands of soldiers were captured as prisoners of war. General Yahya Khan, who was also the president and martial law administrator at the time, had no other option but to vacate his post.

Will it happen again? Odds of that are low. There is democratic rule in the country, whatsoever may be its capabilities and whatever may be its standing among the people. Media has become increasingly free of oppression and people are asking tough questions. The Pakistan-American relationship, however, may strain further. Kayani has to placate his officers and he can only do that by getting tough on Americans. The coming weeks and months will set the course for Kayani, for Pakistan, for Afghanistan, and for the U.S.