Pakistan's civilian rulers seem to have averted a possible coup with a little help from inside the army itself.

Eight weeks ago, as rumours of an imminent coup swirled around Islamabad, few seemed to doubt democratic rule in Pakistan would soon be marched before a firing squad.

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's former Ambassador to the United States, had been recalled to face charges of conspiring to sack top military officials. There was even talk of a treason trial targeting President Asif Ali Zardari himself — with Mr. Haqqani as the Army's star witness.

Events since, however, haven't quite panned out as hardline Pakistani generals might have anticipated: instead of capturing power, the army has found itself in retreat.

Mr. Zardari, Pakistani media have reported, is almost certain to deny the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, an extension to serve until 2013 — a blow directed at Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and a sign of civilian confidence.

In November, Pakistan's military had shut down the Shamsi airbase, used to stage United States drone attacks against Islamist insurgents: actions intended to distinguish them from political rulers too-willing to please the United States. Last month, though, drone strikes resumed — directed by United States intelligence officers located at the Shahbaz airbase near Abbotabad.

Politicians have become increasingly defiant of ISI authority: even Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who has long shied away from controversy, warned against efforts to run “a state within a state”.

The Generals' consensus

LONG held together by a Generals' consensus on the direction Pakistan ought to head in, the army now seems divided as never before. Last month, at a January 13 meeting of the corps commanders conference, where Gen. Kayani briefed generals on the evolving political crisis , he ran into unexpected in-house resistance, leading to a 10-hour debate.

The toughest questioning, a Pakistani government source privy to the discussions told The Hindu, came from Lieutenant-General Tariq Khan — the commander of the Mangla-based 1 corps, and a veteran of counter-insurgency operations who is considered among the most competent of the army's commanders

Gen. Khan, the source said, made clear the army was unprepared to take power, and demanded to know how the army chief intended to resolve the still-unfolding showdown with the civilian governments. He noted that the army had no coherent plan to address its increasingly-fragile relationship with the United States, too. Backed by other key officers, like Gujaranwala-based XXX corps commander Raheel Sharif, Gen. Khan pushed for the army to pull back from the brink.

Ever since the killing of military ruler Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1998, the corps commanders conference has been a key instrument of what Mr. Haqqani once described as “military rule by other means”. The resistance faced by Gen. Kayani within the institution is, therefore, of great significance.

Ever since he took office, Pakistan's army chief had worked to rebuild the army's relationship with the jihadist groups it had patronised for decades. Terrorism in Pakistan, he argued, had come about because the country had become enmeshed in the United States' war against jihadists in Afghanistan. Building peace, he argued, necessitated reviving this relationship — even at the cost of ties with the United States.

In 2008, Gen. Pasha delivered an off-the-record briefing to journalists, where he described Tehreek-e-Taliban commanders Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Muhammad Fazlullah — responsible for hundreds of killings in Pakistan — as “patriots”.

Following the raid that claimed Osama bin Laden last year, Mr. Pasha put the case for an aggressive anti-United States line to Pakistani legislators: “At every difficult moment in our history”, he said “the United States has let us down. This fear that we can't live without the United States is wrong.”

Gen. Kayani's line, the government's decision not to allow his spymaster to serve on suggests, no longer represents the army's institutional consensus.

The path to peace he envisaged involved costs the army isn't willing to pay.

Political resurgence?

EARLY in Mr. Zardari's tenure, he had sought to assert political control over the ISI, but was forced to back off in the face of a furious reaction from the army. He responded by seeking to appease Gen. Kayani, granting him an unprecedented extension of service that will run until 2013 — a decision that may, ironically, have bred hostility towards the army chief among his own officers.

Mr. Zardari, however, continued to irk the army by defying its line on key security issues — notably by authorising Mr. Haqqani to issue official visas to United States intelligence officials without prior approval from the ISI.

The issue came to a head in May, after the raid that claimed Osama bin Laden's life. The ISI was furious, with reason: at a recent conference in Washington DC, former ISI chief Ziauddin Butt revealed that the safehouse used by the al-Qaeda chief was built on the orders of his one-time colleague, Brigadier Ijaz Shah.

Mr Haqqani's alleged memo — which the diplomat insists he never wrote —provided the army with the pretext it needed to strike back against a political establishment that was out of line.

“I want to make it clear today that conspiracies are being hatched here to pack up the elected government”, said Mr Gilani in a December 22 speech, as the crisis approached its climax.

He was right: but the conspiracy failed mainly because Pakistan's army no longer appears to back hardliners who, for the past five years, have guided its path.

More In: International | News