Pakistan's three pillars of state -- the army, the government, and the judiciary -- are locked in a draw. You know the kind: three gunmen, all with guns in both hands, aim fearfully at one another, each unwilling to make the first move. As any good connoisseur of Westerns knows, he who fires first is at a tactical disadvantage. The second to discharge his weapon usually wins. That is why Pakistan has seen plenty of political machinations in recent weeks, but, as yet, no fatal shot.

The current crisis started in October, when an American businessman of Pakistani origin, Mansoor Ijaz, claimed that he was asked to deliver a secret letter to U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen on behalf of Pakistan's civilian government. The anonymous memo requested U.S. protection from a military coup that the government feared was in the offing. In return, Islamabad offered to dismantle part of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's powerful spy agency. Ijaz later claimed that the author of the memo was none other than Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, who, Ijaz said, had written the letter at the request of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. 

After the revelations, Pakistan's military, egged on by an outraged media and opposition, demanded an investigation. Happy to oblige, the Supreme Court set up a three-judge bench to look into "Memogate." Islamabad recalled Haqqani from Washington. He resigned and then holed himself up in Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's residence, fearing for his life. 

Meanwhile, Gilani and the military are fighting a war of words; he called the army a "state within a state" and decried its independent submission of affidavits for the Memogate case to the Supreme Court as "unconstitutional and illegal." In turn, the army warned Zardari and Gilani of "very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences" if the government did not back off. That menacing response, coupled with Gilani's sudden sacking last week of a senior bureaucrat in the Defense Ministry (who is also a retired three-star general), bolstered rumors of an impending coup.

To make matters worse, the Supreme Court took the opportunity this week to initiate contempt of court proceedings against Gilani. The case relates to a long-standing corruption dispute over Zardari's Swiss bank accounts. In 2009, the court directed Islamabad to request that Switzerland open an investigation into Zardari's finances. Unsurprisingly, Gilani came out in opposition, defending his boss. The government's foot-dragging on the case since has now landed Gilani himself in court. 

So what does this all mean? Essentially, a complex power struggle is playing out between the governing Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the military. A braying judiciary further compounds the situation. Each is looking to control Pakistan's national security policy and, specifically, its relationship with the country's most important ally, the United States. In times past, the outcome of such a struggle would have been almost preordained -- as in 1958, 1977, and 1999, when the military easily kicked the civilians to the curb. 

But today, there are limits to each branch's power. The once all-powerful military is increasingly insecure. 

For one, some political commentators believe that the anonymous letter at the core of Memogate is a fake -- a useful stick the military created for beating up the PPP. In fact, there is much to this argument. The memo itself reads like the paranoid ramblings of an extreme military nationalist. In addition to calling for the disbanding of parts of the ISI, the memo gives the U.S. military a green light to conduct operations against al Qaeda on Pakistani soil. It also urges the United States to help Pakistani civilians to take more control of the armed forces, to improve the safety and security of the nuclear program and assets, and to rein in nonstate actors threatening India and the United States.  

All that might sound well and good to American ears, but it does not to Pakistani ones. Zardari and his government are incompetent, but they are not fools. They know that it would be impossible for any Pakistani civilian government to fulfill the memo's demands. Not only that, attempting to do so would be political suicide -- especially if such aims are written down and made public. The ambiguity over the authorship of the unsigned memo is the only thing keeping the government in power. It still retains the benefit of the doubt, but only just.  

Of course, the national media is frothing at the mouth with faux hysteria, and a conveniently nationalistic narrative against the government has taken hold, spurred on by the military and opposition parties. The irony is that many of the memo's demands -- such as that to allow the United States to fight al Qaeda within Pakistan -- have, in the past, been fulfilled by the military itself, often in return for U.S. military aid. That is why the authorship of the memo is so important. If the government wrote it, it would be deemed treasonous. If the military wrote it, it would in one sense be business as usual. But in another, its creation would suggest the military's insecurity and weakness. 

Consider this: in the past, Pakistani politics have followed a fairly standard pattern. The military easily pushes out elected, but unpopular and ineffectual, governments. A pliant Supreme Court validates the coup. And thus dawns a decade or so of military dictatorship. But, these days, the military might not be able to carry out, or stomach, such full-frontal assaults. Instead, it must rely on political skullduggery, hoping for a death by a thousand cuts rather than an outright kill. 

Indeed, in recent years the Pakistani military's political influence has weakened. Remember that the unpopular nine-year rule of General Pervez Musharraf ended only in 2008, with public support for the military at a low. An indicator of its impotence came just before Musharraf stepped down. In March of that year, the civilians had forced General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the head of the armed forces, to withdraw all military officers from government departments, as well as from 23 civil departments. He even gave a veiled mea culpa when he told a military officer in the garrison town of Rawalpindi that "the army fully stands behind the democratic process and is committed to playing its constitutional role." 

As if that was not bad enough, in the following years came the audacious and very public militant attacks on army compounds, which further tarnished the army's standing in the public eye. Most shocking of all, in 2011 the United States was able to waltz through Pakistan's airspace and conduct a unilateral raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. Within the military ranks, this was a cause for acute disgrace and embarrassment, with profound effects on the army's morale. In June, following the bin Laden raid, Ayaz Amir, a columnist for Pakistan's The News and a politician and former army captain himself, questioned whether the Pakistani army had its heart in fighting in North Waziristan given the state of its morale. 

Memogate, therefore, was a convenient distraction from the army's own failures. General Kayani could act tough with the government and thereby appease his own ranks. 

For now, a full coup is unlikely. In addition to the army's weakened state, Pakistan now has a robust and multi-channel media. (In 1999, it had only a single state broadcaster.) Shutting down the media, a necessity for a coup, would prove very difficult, as Musharraf found out when he tried to do so to right his listing ship in 2008. Moreover, Pakistan's woeful economic situation means that a coup would be unattractive to an army that historically prefers to rule during periods of economic prosperity; in those times, it is easier for the generals to fund their own projects, easier for the military to rule, and easier to blame politicians if the economy goes south after they depart. Finally, the army's relationship with the judiciary has changed significantly since the last coup.

In the past, the judiciary and the army were natural allies; they are both conservative, Punjabi dominated, and distrustful of the political class. The cozy relationship paid off for the army, which could always rely on a compliant judiciary to legitimize its coups. But in 2007, Musharraf sacked the independent-minded Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, which many saw as an attempt to consolidate his power. After that, thousands of lawyers took to the streets to demand judicial independence, and Musharraf fell. After democratic elections, Chaudhry was reinstated and, ever, since, the judiciary has been keen to assert its independence. 

Still, although the judiciary and the military have their differences, they remain somewhat united by their shared loathing of the PPP government. The chief justice has a particular enmity with Zardari, because Zardari opposed his reappointment. The president relented only after another street protest. And certainly the contempt-of-court proceedings this week, coinciding as they did with the Memogate case, suggest that the judiciary is eager to pick a fight with the government. Many Pakistanis believe that the military is all too happy to advance the cases in order to oust Zardari through constitutional means. 

So we are back to the standoff. No one really knows how it will end. The military and judiciary are circling the beleaguered PPP government, firing the odd potshot to maim, but neither is quite powerful enough to dispense a fatal shot -- as yet. For its part, the PPP is relying upon its current parliamentary majority. Further, the party easily won a recent confidence motion, demonstrating to the military and the judiciary that the party still enjoys political support. It certainly doesn't want to fire at its aggressors first. Ideally, it wants to bunker down, and hopes to ride this out. 

Still, there is a general feeling that the PPP's days in office are numbered. No democratic government has ever completed a full term in Pakistan. It seems unlikely that this one will be any different and will make it to February 2013, when the current parliamentary term ends. Given the standoff, the most likely outcome is that the PPP will be forced to call early general elections. But the PPP will want to buy time. It will want to ensure that the Senate elections -- which are due before March -- take place first. (Senators from the upper house are elected by the national and state parliaments, so the ruling PPP has a strong chance of retaining its majority.) Naturally, opposition parties are keen to force an election before then.

At this point, then, the PPP has four options. First, Gilani may fall on his sword to diffuse the row with the Supreme Court and delay a vote. There is some talk that Gilani could be replaced by Aitzaz Ahsan, a PPP stalwart and a leading light of the lawyers' movement. Such a move would certainly help the PPP buy time, and make it more difficult for the judiciary to attack the government. And having a wily lawyer as prime minister would also make it more difficult for the military to continue using the courts as their weapon in which to attack the government.

Second, the PPP could wait until after the Senate vote and then gamble on an early election. It would probably lose. But a government headed by a politically neutered Nawaz Sharif or by the inexperienced Imran Khan, the two leading opposition leaders, would likely be fragile. The PPP could bide its time in the opposition, just waiting for the government to fall so it could resume its post. This scenario could well appease the military if Khan ended up residing in the prime minister's house instead, especially if his detractors, who accuse him of having the unspoken support of the military establishment, are correct. After years in the political wilderness, Khan has suddenly enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity in recent months, attracting large crowds at rallies in Karachi and Lahore. 

Third, the PPP government could call for a national unity administration to resolve the political emergency. A broad consensus regime including representatives from across the political spectrum would certainly defuse any pressure from the military and the judiciary. Yet the PPP shows no sign toward such collegial solutions ever since Nawaz Sharif's PML-N withdrew from cabinet in May 2008 (an act caused by the government's failure to reinstate the Supreme Court judges dismissed by President Musharraf). More, the opposition parties might well be disinclined to join if they see the call as being a political maneuver to prop up a floundering PPP. 

Finally, the PPP could do the unthinkable and sack its main tormentor-in-chief, Kayani. This would be the riskiest strategy. The last time a civilian prime minister attempted to fire an army chief, the army chief (Musharraf) took over and the prime minister (Nawaz Sharif) spent the next decade in exile. But perhaps Zardari, sensing a weakened military unwilling to step in, is foolhardy enough to risk such a move. 

Time will tell. Until then, Pakistan's standoff continues.

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  • GEORGE FULTON is a British journalist who worked as a writer and broadcaster in Pakistan from 2002 to 2011.
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