Over the past few weeks, Pakistan’s army has been faced with the quandary of whether to take over through a coup or not, while the rest of us are left wondering if this fragile democracy will survive, or once again be defeated by its formidable challenger – the army.

Photo credit: Anjum Naveed/Associated Press

Photo credit: Anjum Naveed/Associated Press

Since the start of the year, civil-military relations have taken a nosedive, with no recovery in sight, and with each side threatening serious consequences. The initiation of this cat and mouse chase between the military establishment and the democratically elected government began back in May 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed by the American forces in Abbotabad. The government’s initial response was to condemn the blatant violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, but the rupture between the army and the civilian government was already set in place.

The recent memogate scandal/affair is a testament to the army’s mistrust of the civilian regime, along with the Supreme Court’s order of reopening the corruption cases that were suspended in the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Hussain Haqqani, seems to be the first victim of the memogate scandal, who is accused of being the author of the so-called memorandum. This scandal is based on a confidential memorandum addressed to Admiral Mike Mullen after the bin Laden raid seeking American help to avert a military coup in return for nuclear transparency. The memorandum was delivered to Admiral Mullen by a Pakistani-American businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, on behest of Hussain Haqqani.

The analysis here is based on two issues; first, a post-U.S. scenario in the region, and, secondly, on the rising influence of the red dragon, China. Both are crucial for the Pakistan army and its future choices and options. In a post-U.S. region, along with the decline in American supremacy globally, the patron client relationship that Pakistan has maintained with the U.S. is also dwindling. Thus any party, person or group connected with it is also out of the game. The army from the very beginning has perceived the Zardari-Gillani enterprise as an American client regime, albeit the army would like to play that role itself and traditionally it had done so. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is conventionally associated with the West (particularly the US) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif’s (PML-N) link seems to be more with the Gulf states (Saudi Arabia). Yet both have maintained and respected Pakistan’s ties with China.

The emerging player in Pakistani politics is cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Threek-i-Insaaf (PTI), who has maintained an anti-American stand, in addition to an anti-foreign aid stance. Nevertheless, Khan has been astute enough not to air anti-China sentiment, and instead he insists on strengthening the already strong Sino-Pak ties. In recent months, Imran Khan also received an unprecedented invitation by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to visit Beijing. Up until now, only elected prime ministers have been granted such honors, and this shows Beijing’s commitment to Pakistan’s future, as well as affirming its own regional position vis-à-vis India. Hence, for the army establishment it would be bearable to accept someone like Imran Khan, to keep the public content and the army in the barracks and not on the streets. The question is, would Imran Khan be able to keep his promises and contain this army-cum-leviathan that is immersed in every aspect of the Pakistani society.

Pakistan is clearly linking itself exclusively with China, and Sino-Pakistan relations have remained strong since 1962. Both sides claim that this all-weather friendship has endured political and economic shifts, but their partnership has remained strong. This brings us back to our earlier question: would the army once enter the political arena or not? Historically, the army allows democracy to come into play only to please its Western clients, and with the power balance shifting towards the Chinese side, the army is not concerned with Western appeasement.

At this point, it is pivotal to keep in mind that the current political institutions in Pakistan are very different from the previous times when martial law was declared. The rules of the game have changed, with the judiciary and the media both playing a robust role in the political system. Albeit, the army might not care to placate the West, but to play it safe and not face a threat of mass revolt, it would not commit a coup for two reasons. Firstly, it is not prepared for a repeat of anything similar to the Long March of 2008-09. More importantly, if it can easily get its way by exploiting institutions like the judiciary and the media, why bother with instating martial law? In addition, General Kayani seems to be comfortable in being only the Chief of Army Staff, and not interested in being the president or the chief executive.

Pakistan has grappled with three and half (Yahya Khan’s regime being the half) military regimes lasting for almost four decades. The military has exploited the India security threat for most of Pakistan’s existence in order to gain full access to all institutions. Thus, over the years it has strengthened its reach, and is used to getting rid of any civilian leader by conveniently declaring martial law. But with the recent events in the Middle East, it will play it safe and would not like to start a new wave, or the South Asian version of winter revolution/uprising.

Thus the army this time is more calculated, by playing one branch of the government against another. The judiciary seems to be in a head on collision with the executive branch with the army establishment in the control position. The reopening of NRO cases (corruption cases) is an attempt to purge the society of the old guard and pursuing the memogate scandal has already left the government weak and discredited.

Predictions are often embarrassing, yet as political scientists, we attempt to make enlightened guesses, and the present situation in Islamabad is filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. The aim here is not to predict, but to contend that the army has always claimed to be the defenders of Pakistan’s borders and the protectors of their motherland, yet their record shows that they have not been the guardians of Pakistan’s constitution or the preservers of democratic institutions. As it was famously joked about, ‘every country has an army, and in Pakistan’s case the army has a country.’ If the army establishment is interested in the future of Pakistan as an economic success story, it needs to back off and let the political process take place. The army needs to heed from Henry Kissinger advice, ‘that Pakistan needs to think long term and needs to find a national identity that is not based on the fear of India.’