Coup in Pakistan? India Seeks To Exploit U.S. Distraction
Feb 14, 2003
Rumors are emanating from New Delhi that a right-wing military coup might be brewing in Islamabad, and if Washington doesn't act to replace President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, it might have a new problem to deal with after Iraq. While Musharraf faces a serious challenge in balancing competing forces at home, talk of a coup might be premature. Rather, India is trying to catch Washington off-balance as the United States focuses on Iraq -- and New Delhi might not be alone in pursuing such a course.
Indian sources are leaking rumors of a possible right-wing military coup in Pakistan just as Washington is making final preparations for a war in Iraq. In the event of the ouster of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Gen. Mohammad Aziz Khan, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, would take over the military and the country. New Delhi is quietly warning that if Washington doesn't drop Musharraf and find a true pro-U.S. general to lead Pakistan soon, it might face a much bigger threat than Iraq.
Musharraf faces a challenge inside Pakistan in balancing the interests of those opposed to his cooperation with Washington -- be they military or religious forces -- while at the same time keeping the country from the receiving end of U.S. guns and bombs. However, the coup rumors appear premature, and might instead reveal a desire by New Delhi to manipulate Washington's relationship with India's traditional nemesis: Pakistan.
India will not be alone in pursuing such schemes. As Washington gets closer to war with Iraq, other nations will try to exploit the expected U.S. tunnel vision -- hoping to press their own agendas and have the United States react without taking time to analyze and prepare contingency plans.
Contrary to the initial rumors out of New Delhi, Indian intelligence sources tell Stratfor that they have not seen new signs of an imminent coup in Pakistan, though they do suggest such a plan might be in the works six months or more down the road. According to these sources, there are two groups considering the overthrow of the Musharraf regime -- "hard-line" military officers and religiously motivated Pushtun officers.
The first group seeks to at least remove Musharraf from his position as Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and shift Pakistan's military alliances away from Washington and back toward other Muslim nations and China. Such a plot has not been discounted by Pakistani sources, who tell Stratfor that discontent in the military might lead some officers to try to sideline Musharraf, leaving him as president but taking away his military power.
The other group of potential coup plotters, Pushtun officers, are seeking -- according to Indian intelligence sources -- to rally other Islamist factions in Pakistan to overthrow Musharraf and place the country on a more fundamentalist Islamic course. This would mark a drastic change in Pakistani political succession, as previous coups all had military backing and were led by the COAS -- who in this case is Musharraf himself.
Khan's role in all of this, according to Indian intelligence sources, is as an as-of-yet uncommitted replacement for Musharraf as COAS, should the former group of generals succeed in replacing Musharraf as army chief. Khan, often referred to by Indian media as the "Islamic General," was a key facilitator in Musharraf's coup to overthrow former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Khan also was a key player in the Kargil conflict in the disputed territory of Kashmir, and is himself of Kashmiri ancestry.
Indian officials have long distrusted Khan, concerned that he would promote additional Pakistani adventurism in Kashmir. And, despite their close connections, Musharraf, too, grew concerned with Khan. On Oct. 8, 2001, Khan was promoted above other generals from his position as corps commander for Lahore to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.
The move, rather than a promotion, however, was intended to weaken Khan's powers and keep him under close observation. The JCS in Pakistan is a largely ceremonial position, whereas the corps commanders wield real power. On the same night, Musharraf sidelined the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence, another potential competitor.
Musharraf since has walked a fine line between appeasing three competing groups -- his restless generals, the Islamist factions and security personnel whose fates were tied closely to that of the Taliban and the United States, which offers the stark choice of cooperation or isolation and probable attack. New Delhi is increasingly anxious to end Washington's support for Musharraf, whom Indian officials say is doing little or nothing to stem cross-border attacks by Islamist militants and Kashmiri separatists.
For India, leaking rumors of a right-wing coup just as Washington prepares to engage Iraq is a low-cost gamble. At worst, no one listens. At best, Washington itself decides to remove Musharraf. Somewhere in the middle, Musharraf feels nervous and starts taking action against his own generals, particularly those that India sees as the greatest potential threat.
While it might all be wishful thinking on India's part, New Delhi's actions are representative of what other countries likely will do with increasing frequency as Washington is drawn deeper into preparations for and engagement in war in Iraq. Both nominal and close allies of the United States will use this time to try to catch Washington off-balance and distracted with Iraq in order to advance their own agendas. With the United States' focus growing tighter on Iraq, Washington might miscalculate on another issue -- taking the word of an ally at face value without taking time to fully analyze the situation and simply shooting from the hip.