Rumors of a pending military coup are a popular dinner-party topic in Pakistan these days, but then they always are. The military, after all, has directly ruled Pakistan for more than half of the 63 years it has been an independent nation.
What got the rumor mill going recently was a leak that military chief General Ashfaq Kayani, in a meeting with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari, demanded the dismissal of several cabinet ministers because of alleged corruption. But fears that the military was positioning itself to install a new civilian government miss the point. In Pakistan, the army is already in control.
For outsiders, including some in the U.S. who are frustrated with the slow grind of Pakistan's government machinery, there's something to be said for working with the one Pakistani institution that seems to function effectively. "The real Pakistan-U.S. relationship is not between the civilian administrations," says Mushahid Hussain, a prominent politician with close ties to the military. "It is between GHQ [Pakistan's army headquarters] and the Pentagon." Even staunch supporters of democracy quietly applauded the military's move, so fed up are Pakistanis with the failures of their civilian leadership. "There is a strong undercurrent of distaste and distrust of this government because of perceived corruption," says a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad. The diplomat agreed that Zardari should get rid of the corrupt and ineffectual people around him, though he did not approve of the military's strong-arming the President.
Members of the Obama Administration have been watching developments closely. While many agree that Zardari's government is in need of a shake-up, the military's role rings alarm bells. "The U.S. has paid a price in the past for seeming to place a relationship with, say, an individual military leader over support for Pakistani democratic institutions," says a senior Administration official. "Pakistan is a democracy, and [the government] won't survive if they are not responsive to the needs of their people." In truth, civilian subservience to the military carries significant risks. The U.S. sends some $2 billion a year to the Pakistani military for its role in combating terrorist groups along the border with Afghanistan, and another $1.5 billion a year is earmarked for civilian institutions. Yet the army has consistently failed to go after militants in North Waziristan, which serves as a haven for al-Qaeda and insurgents fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Elements of Pakistan's intelligence agency continue to back such groups, hedging their bets in anticipation of an eventual U.S. withdrawal from the region. North Waziristan is also where would-be international terrorists go for advanced weapons and explosives training, including those militants alleged to have been plotting an attack on European targets.
But despite that failing, the military has tightened its grip on power since Zardari took office in 2008. Zardari, the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, wanted to pursue his wife's ambition of forging a better relationship with Pakistan's regional neighbors, including India. But the generals nixed a much heralded Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. When Zardari, in a gesture aimed at India, suggested that Pakistan might stand down its first-strike nuclear capability, he was admonished by the generals. Then a government attempt to bring the military's controversial Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency under civilian oversight collapsed. And after the November 2008 Mumbai massacre, Gilani's decision to dispatch the ISI chief to New Delhi to share intelligence was reversed because of similar pressure.
Under Kayani, military intervention has not been limited to national security and foreign policy. In 2009 he pressed a reluctant government to restore deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to office. And following a row over the appointment of a Finance Minister, the military offered Zardari a choice between two approved candidates. Zardari settled on the Privatization Minister under former military strongman Pervez Musharraf, Abdul Hafeez Shaikh. "The Finance Minister was not someone of our choosing," says a Zardari aide, lamenting the reduction of presidential clout. The armed forces have also gotten involved with international aid. Last summer, when the civilian government cheered the prospect of U.S. legislation tripling nonmilitary aid, the generals stepped in to denounce conditions in the Kerry-Lugar bill as humiliating. It wasn't the first time that Washington concentrated on the socioeconomic needs of Pakistan, but the military took as a threat a rider stipulating that funds would cease in the event of a coup and launched a media campaign against U.S. meddling in Pakistan's internal affairs.
None of this means that Pakistan's civilian leaders are paragons. Even before the recent devastating floods, Zardari and Gilani presided over a country that seemed in a perpetual state of crisis. The country's richest citizens don't pay taxes, and the ministerial cabinet, bloated with political loyalists rather than competent technocrats, has been unable to check rampant inflation, corruption and widespread insecurity. Beggars, once a rarity, are now a common sight. Parents are pulling their children out of school because they can no longer afford the fees, even for government-run institutions.
The central government's paralysis during the floods earned it the most ire, and the military did indeed do better at rescue and relief. But logistics are what armies are supposed to be good at. It's unlikely that the men in uniform would fix the economy, nor is there any evidence that Pakistan's armed forces are clean as a whistle. Several high-ranking military officers are being investigated for an alleged land scam in Lahore. And video footage of an extrajudicial killing of six men by soldiers prompted both domestic and international outrage.
Some Pakistanis have always recognized that military intervention isn't the solution to the nation's needs. Says schoolteacher Sabur Ali, 53: "It has been proved so far that neither the current democratic system nor army rule can bring prosperity and peace to our country. We have to turn toward God and seek his guidance." But for others, furious with the civilian failures, the military remains the last best hope. "Pakistanis are really impatient," says Atif Saeed, an MBA student. "They ignored military rule for decades, yet they are not willing to give an elected government enough time to prove its worth." U.S. officials, mindful that the military probably doesn't want the international opprobrium that would come with a coup, are prepared to give Kayani the benefit of the doubt. "He obviously wants the civilian government to succeed," says a U.S. military official, "because it frees him up to do more fighting [against militants]. It's fair to say that [the army is] applying pressure in a way to help spur the government to be more effective."
But some in uniform, or recently out of it, are not so modest. On Oct. 1, Musharrafwho led a military government from 1999 to 2007, then stayed on as President until August 2008made his feelings plain. Now in self-imposed exile in Britain, Musharraf announced the formation of a new political party dedicated to giving the army a constitutional role in the country's politics. "We cannot allow Pakistan to disintegrate," he told the BBC. "So who's the savior? The army can do it... Therefore the answer is the army gets involved."
It is that kind of thinking that has ensured that no civilian government in Pakistan's history has completed a full term. Calling on the military may look like a quick fix. But it would be better if Pakistanis dedicated themselves to the long, slow task of building a representative and responsive political system in which those who perform poorly are held accountable at the ballot boxnot at the whim of Pakistan's men in uniform.
This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2010 issue of TIME.