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The Rediff Special/ Lt General Ashok Joshi (retd)

It is highly unlikely the Pakistan army would want another misadventure with India

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Which of his fears must ultimately have driven Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief to dismiss General Pervez Musharraf on October 12, on his way home from Colombo after an official visit, must remain a matter of speculation. Even so, some guesses can be hazarded on the basis of history and recent events.

It is quite likely that the US intelligence had warned Sharief of a coup. But perhaps it had not, because, had this been so, it might have done it discretely. The US warning, it would seem, was aimed as much at the people at large, as at the military leadership in Pakistan. This would indeed create the right background for Sharief to act, if and when he found it necessary, or expedient, to do so.

It is quite possible that Sharief himself had conveyed his fears of a military coup to the US and pleaded for its support. He might also have explained that he would find it easier to take over the nuclear programme, including weapons, from the military, provided the US could convey the need for doing so to the military through its professional contacts.

The Kargil crisis would indicate that the military leadership was amenable to persuasion by US military professionals. Had not the visit of the commanding general of the US central command to Pakistan on June 23 proved crucial in persuading the Pakistan military that they should agree to the withdrawal of its troops to the Line of Control in the Kargil sector?

General Musharraf had reacted angrily to the US warnings against unconstitutional changes in Pakistan, and advised the prime minister on September 22 to lodge a protest with the US. The general had reportedly turned down a US invitation to visit Hawaii, the seat of the US Pacific command. But General Khwaja Ziauddin, the head of the Inter-Services intelligence, visited the US, ostensibly to respond to the concerns of the US Congress regarding fundamentalism in Pakistan.

Was the visit at the prime minister's instance? Why send General Ziauddin, who was training terrorists for action in Kashmir and other parts of India, to the US? Who did General Ziauddin met in the US, and what promises were made by him, must remain a secret for a long time to come. Did he agree not to resist handing over control of the nuclear programme to the prime minister, provided of course, he was the boss of the Pakistan army, and had a free hand?

Had Sharief sent a message that signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would not be particularly meaningful if the control of the nuclear programme remained under the military; and also that the military had forced his hand in May 1998 to carry out the tests? Did Sharief cleverly exploit the known US obsession about nuclear weapons in Pakistan to harness American support in his favour? He must have been aware it would not be easy to deal with the aftermath of sacking a serving army chief. This was particularly so in the wake of the Kargil imbroglio.

General Ziauddin's elevation to the post of chief of army staff was announced at the same time as the sacking of General Musharraf. This was intriguing because General Ziauddin was not a corps commander. The Pakistan army might have doubted his professional competence. Out of turn promotions had been carried out in the past by then prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and later by Sharief.

Pakistan prime ministers have always been afraid of what the late Bhutto described as Bonapartism. They took care not to ruffle the army's feathers. Bhutto did sack the army chief, but the times were different. The Pakistan army had been humiliated in Bangladesh, its confidence was at an all time low, and most of its senior leadership was in disrepute.

Sharief could not have taken the risk of promoting General Ziauddin, who had no direct control over troops, without a credible assurance from him that he had the necessary support of the corps commanders who mattered. In retrospect, it is now obvious that the plan was leaked, and in the battle of wits and subterfuge, the prime minister's nominee lost. The transcript of the reported telephonic conversation of May 29, 1999 between General Musharraf and chief of general staff Lt General Mohammed Aziz Khan were published in the Indian media.

It is all too clear that the leadership in the Pakistan army distrusted General Ziauddin, and expected him to give his version to the prime minister, and not tow the COAS line. This could not have endeared him to the army chief, and he must have been on guard against General Ziauddin's machinations. What was it that caused General Musharraf to remove Lt Gen Tariq Aziz from the command of the XII Corps? Was he the only corps commander who did not report that he had been approached?

Sharief wanted General Musharraf out of his hair. At one stage, he might have connived at his plan for Kargil, keeping his options open, either to back him, or to sack him, depending upon the results. But in the wake of the disastrous operations and isolation, the man had clearly become a liability.

Smarting under the humiliation that he must have suffered, having had to ask the troops to withdraw, without making any positive gains, General Musharraf was putting on a brave face, but must have been under great pressure from within the army. He might have been plotting and scheming for another opportunity to vindicate the army's honour. What Sharief might have feared the most was another misadventure of General Musharraf's making.

There was nothing unconstitutional about the dismissal of an army chief by the head of government. But there was something dubious about it. Why announce the dismissal when General Musharraf was still in the air? The whole exercise smacked of chicanery.

It has never been easy for the leadership in Pakistan to deal with the consequences of defeat by India. Some heads have always had to roll. In the past, Field Marshal Ayub Khan and General Mohammad Yahya Khan paid the price, as Z A Bhutto, 'the Grey Eminence', shielded himself from the fallout.

Had Sharief succeeded in removing General Musharraf from command, there is no knowing if he would have fed him to the lions, or sent him out as an ambassador. Obviously, the leadership in the Pakistan army felt that Sharief was out to divide and humiliate it. Did they conclude that Sharief had not stopped operations in Kargil, when he had the opportunity to do so, with a view to bringing down the army a peg or two?

It would appear that General Musharraf's dismissal was a coup by Sharief, and it had been planned with care. It is quite likely that he was merely trying to pre-empt a military takeover. General Musharraf, it appears in retrospect, had 'Operation Sharafat' ready, and all that his loyal chief of general staff wanted to hear was a code word followed by date and time, or simply, now. He was looking for a trigger, something, which would convince the common man in Pakistan that the provocation for a military takeover was very great.

Sharief seems to have fallen into a trap, perhaps of his making. It would appear that the prime minister, no less than his army chief, was acting in bad faith. Even by the standards of the Pakistan army, who must have some kind of a 'Blue Book' on a military takeover, the action of October 12, 1999 was remarkable. It shows that the army is not open or amenable to outside influences.

Professional heads of the army have always been in the lead in dismissing civilian governments. There has never been a Colonel Nasser or a Colonel Gaddafi behind any coup d'etat. There has been no revolutionary fervour, or an ideology. The army has remained generally undivided and inward looking. Only the late Ayub Khan is known to have faced a coup d' etat. He, it is believed, had the man strung by his toes.

It is equally clear that the army keeps its secrets well and the political leadership in Pakistan knows very little about the attributes of the generals. The late Bhutto and Sharief handpicked men who proved to be their nemesis. What was possible for General Zia-ul Haq in 1977 may not be possible for General Musharraf in 1999. He may not be able to resist for long the demand for the restoration of the civilian government. But he will not hand over power without seeking immunity for all those who support him, and he will make a bid for a statutory role for the army in decision making not only in security matters, but also in governance.

The Pakistan army has always looked upon itself as the ultimate repository of Pakistan's nationhood. It will not given up its hold on nuclear weapons nor will it share control over the nuclear programme with elected representatives. It does not hold democracy in any great esteem. It may become even more suspicious of civilian control.

The army is likely to remain busy with working out ways and means of achieving its objectives. It will also indulge in some witch-hunting and cleansing to rid itself of elements that had reacted favourably to overtures by General Ziauddin. Pakistan faces a terrible economic situation, the Taliban, drug lords, and politicians out of power who would want to use the army to settle scores.

It is highly unlikely that the Pakistan army would want another misadventure with India. But there is no knowing what it would do if pushed to the wall. After all, it is only war against India that unites Pakistan, and renders speechless the advocates of democracy and human rights.

Lieutenant General Ashok Joshi (retired) is a former director of military training.

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