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The risk of Islamist coups

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The eastern half of what used to be Pakistan narrowly escaped a military coup last month. Brigadier Masud Razzak, the spokesman of the Bangladeshi army, announced on Jan. 19 that "a band of fanatic officers has been trying to oust the politically established government. Their attempt has been foiled."

They had "extreme religious views," he said, and revealed that some of the 16 conspirators, all of them current or former military officers, will soon appear before a military court. For a country with a dismal history of military coups, some of them very violent, it was a heartening outcome. But it was also a reminder of where the real danger lies in the subcontinent.

If the country called Pakistan that got its independence from Britain in 1947 were still a single state, it would be the fourth-biggest nation on the planet, with more than 300 million people. Its two halves, however, were separated by 1,500 kilometres of Indian territory and had little in common apart from having Muslim majorities. That Pakistan lasted only 24 years and broke apart amid much bloodshed in 1971.

Since then, the two successor states have taken different paths. Bangladesh has no major disputes with its giant Indian neighbour and spends relatively little on its military. The part that is still called Pakistan, on the other side of India, has a huge territorial dispute with India over Kashmir, a history of wars with its neighbour and very serious armed forces. It also has a history of coups. And Islamist fanatics in the officer corps. And nuclear weapons.

There are reasons to hope the worst days are past in both countries. The military relinquished supreme power in Bangladesh 20 years ago and the country is a functioning (but very turbulent) democracy. Pakistan also has a democratic government now -- the army officially left power in 2001, although a general went on running the government until 2008 -- but the military still overshadows it.

But it is not generals seizing power in Pakistan that worries foreign governments. It is the fear that middle-ranking Islamist fanatics in the army might stage a successful coup and get their hands on those nuclear weapons. They would be people quite similar in their beliefs to the officers whose coup has just been foiled in Bangladesh -- but Bangladesh doesn't have nuclear weapons.

A coup by Islamist officers in Bangladesh would be seen by most foreigners as deeply regrettable but mostly of only local interest. A coup by Islamist officers in Pakistan would unleash the mother of all panics.

An Indian strategist once told me, off the record, what he thought would happen about six hours after news of an Islamist coup in Pakistan reached the rest of the world.

There would be a huge "traffic jam" over Kahuta and other major Pakistani nuclear weapons facilities as the Indian, Iranian, American and Israeli air forces all tried to keep the nuclear weapons out of the hands of the fanatics by destroying them.

It wouldn't succeed, because Pakistan already has more than 50 nuclear weapons and keeps them dispersed precisely to thwart that kind of attack. The Israeli air force couldn't really reach Pakistan (although Pakistan has missiles that could reach Israel). A few other details in the strategist's scenario also ring false -- but it is basically credible.

So how likely is an Islamist military coup in Pakistan? About as likely as it is in Bangladesh, which is to say unlikely, but not unimaginable. In this one thing the two armies are alike -- and quite different from those of most other Muslim countries.

In almost all other Muslim countries, the armies take great care to ensure Islamist officers do not rise very high in rank. They might make captain, but they won't make colonel. This is because the generals know they can't be trusted. The generals themselves are mostly faithful Muslims, but they must protect the integrity of the military institution they serve, and that means no Islamists in positions of real power.

Islamists, by definition, cannot give their full loyalty to the army or state. Ultimately, they serve an imagined Islamic caliphate that would sweep away even the country they are supposed to serve. Their lesser loyalties are purely tactical and transitory. So the armies have never let them near real power -- except in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In both cases, this anomaly was created by military dictators who made pragmatic alliances with religious extremists as part of their strategy for holding onto power. Gen. Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan and Gen. Ziaur Rahman in Bangladesh allowed Islamists to be promoted into the higher ranks in their respective armies, and although they are now long gone, that policy continues, especially in Pakistan.

All previous military interventions in politics in Pakistan have been done by the army as an institution, acting in obedience to its lawful commanders. That kind of thing would not radically change Pakistan's policies toward the rest of the world. But if middle-ranking Islamist officers were to break the chain of command and seize power like their comrades in Bangladesh intended to do, then all bets would be off.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose columns are published in 45 countries.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2012 A10

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