Speculation has been rife in political circles for three months that Pakistan’s president General Pervez Musharraf may not survive his wrangle with the chief justice and hold on to power.
But a great silence emanates from the one place that may count the most: the barracks and the mess halls of the armed forces, the other great part of Pakistan’s ruling equation.
What the army thinks about the political logjam and what it decides to do in the event of continuing stalemate, instability or violence will be the defining factor in Musharraf’s future, most commentators agree.
If and when the army feels it is being damaged by its association with Musharraf, and his insistence on retaining the dual posts of president and chief of army staff, it will act to safeguard the reputation of the army, they say.
Historians and columnists have been outlining the precedents, recalling how Pakistan’s three previous military rulers exited from power. None were under happy circumstances, and none bode well for Musharraf.
The longest-ruling general, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who seized power in 1977, died in 1988 in a plane crash, the cause of which remains a mystery.
The strongest possibility is that the plane was sabotaged, possibly by a bomb—or even, according to one theory, by a knockout gas—hidden inside crates of mangoes, a gift that was put on board the presidential plane at the last minute.
This being mango season, the old story has gained a lot of currency lately. “He either goes the mango crate way or he goes gracefully,” as one serving military officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan’s other two military dictators in its turbulent 60 years since independence were forced out by fellow officers. General Ayub Khan, who ruled from 1958 to 1969, was isolated, unpopular and sick by the end, and after months of popular unrest was replaced by another military man, General Yahya Khan.
Khan promised a return to democracy and held probably the fairest elections Pakistan has ever seen.
But after war and the brea-kup of Pakistan in 1971, when Bangladesh gained independence, his fellow officers forced him to resign, handing over rule of what remained of Pakistan to the civilian political leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Musharraf, the fourth military ruler Pakistan has seen, has already survived several attempts on his life, and with suicide bombings on the rise and Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the hills, the possibility of assassination remains even if he steps down.
But the general is showing no readiness to relinquish either his civilian or his military post, though both terms expire toward the end of the year.
But if his stubbornness is met with more demonstrations, challenges in the courts and civil unrest, the army command will grow increasingly concerned.
Well aware of the importance of backing within the army, Musharraf called a meeting of his corps commanders and principal military staff earlier this month, apparently to ensure their support. The military public relations service issued an unusually long press release in that vein.
“The corps commanders and principal staff officers of the Pakistan army affirmed to stand committed for the security of their country under the leadership and guidance of the President and the COAS,” it read, referring to the chief of army staff.
Several former members of the army said such assurances only underscore the general’s insecurity.
The discontent is seeping into the lower ranks as well.
In North-West Frontier Province, there is growing frustration among military and intelligence officials over the rising lawlessness of Taliban militants and the President’s apparent lack of concern and direction, senior officials say.
Even in the capital, army officers say they can feel the changing mood.
The serving military officer described driving in Islamabad and seeing someone holding up a placard that showed a big army boot stamping on a map of Pakistan.
Faced with such discontent, the mood in the military is not for another general to take over, but for the country to restore civilian rule, several former military officers said.
The serving officer said he could sense growing dissatisfaction among fellow officers, but discipline was such that no one was voicing it. “They don’t say it. From their eyes you can see it,” he said.
Asked if the corps commanders might tell the general he had to go, he answered: “We may be coming to that stage.” INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE