Only Shock Events Could Trigger Pakistan's Fourth Military Coup

04/14/2015 10:08 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

Last year's mass anti-government protests against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and led by politician Imran Khan generated much speculation about Pakistan's next military coup - but of course it didn't happen. Instead, we witnessed a soft coup with army chief Raheel Sharif overcoming internal military calls for an official takeover by personally negotiating stability behind-the-scenes. Does this mean the era of hard coups is a relic of the past in Pakistan, a country which has spent almost half of its 68-year existence under military rule?

According to Wikistrat's latest crowdsourced analysis, a military coup is unlikely to take place in Pakistan before the 2018 election when Prime Minister Sharif's term expires. Yes, there are multiple terrorism strains, recurring bouts of sectarian violence and electricity shortages, among other risk factors causing domestic instability. But the fact remains that the 2013 election marked a significant milestone for Pakistan's democratic development - it was the first (relatively) peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another. It is only in the event of a major and unexpected threat to national security - i.e. a geopolitical shock event - that we will see the army disrupt the ongoing democratic transition by staging the country's fourth hard coup.

Yes, Wikistrat's crowd of analysts did not see these geopolitical shock events as very likely by 2018. However, they are low-probability, high-impact events that - unlike the various socio-economic and political risks Pakistan faces - would impact the army's institutional interests and therefore trigger some form of intervention in national politics. Prime Minister Sharif's crisis-ridden civilian government is unlikely to survive the following external threats to its stability, offering a possible pathway to a military coup in the next three years:

Kashmir and More Terrorist Attacks Destroy Bilateral Relations with India

Pakistan's civilian government and military are at odds over foreign and security policy with its neighbor, compelling the military to officially take over. The military keeps the Kashmir issue alive and actively supports the insurgency and terrorist activities in India. When India's security services thwart an ISI-orchestrated terrorist attack, Pakistan's army escalates fighting in Kashmir in an attempt to distract India and dissuade it from responding. With mounting forces at the borders and unaccountable generals dictating key foreign policy matters, Pakistan moves close to an armed conflict with India. The firing incidents escalate and Indian forces reciprocate with equal or more firepower. The loss of life and damage on both sides of the border compels both governments to find a military solution in the absence of a diplomatic solution, despite international condemnation.

A Standoff with Afghanistan

Following the expected US/NATO troops withdrawal in 2016, the Afghan government is too weak to control the entire country and secure its borders. Taliban activity increases in the south, allowing individual warlords to assert their authority in other parts of the country, often based on ethnic and tribal identities. Afghanistan's neighbors, including Pakistan, become fearful of contagion to their own territories and move to stabilize the border areas. Pakistan's relations with the Afghan government are hostage to the rise of the Taliban. Convinced that Pakistan continues to support the Taliban, the Afghan government looks increasingly to Moscow and India for support, increasing tensions with Islamabad. Afghan paranoia ironically forces Pakistan into more overt support for the Taliban to preserve its own interests in Afghanistan. Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan increase, prompting the military to take over and secure the nation.

Uyghur Terrorism Destabilizes Relations with China

Pakistan's historically close relationship with China is put under intense pressure by a dramatic increase of Uyghur terrorism in Xinjiang and beyond. Such terrorism is orchestrated by the Uyghur leader, Abdullah Mansour, who is widely known to be hiding out in Pakistan's mountainous border region with Afghanistan. This leads to the Chinese government formally asking Pakistan to draw out the Uyghur leader and deliver him to Chinese authorities. When Pakistan fails to deliver and news surfaces that members of Pakistan's military and ISI support him, China's government threatens to send forces across the border to secure Mansour and destroy any training camps. The seeds are planted for Pakistan's military to take over, as the civilian government struggles to deal with the Chinese threat diplomatically.

NOTE: This crowdsourced analysis included the participation of MA Politics and International Relations students taking Political Risk & Prediction at New York University's Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.