In Pakistan, Army Shows Who's the Real Boss

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Dismissed, said the prime minister to the general. But within hours, the general had repaid the compliment, and Pakistan was back under military rule after an 11-year democratic interlude. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif found himself under house arrest Tuesday after military units surrounded his residence and took control of key facilities all over the country. The coup followed Nawaz’s decision earlier in the day to fire armed forces chief General Parvez Musharaf. "The conflict between the generals and Nawaz dates back to the prime minister’s decision in the summer, under pressure from Washington, to order his army to end its Kashmir incursion," says TIME New Delhi correspondent Maseeh Rahman. "That decision was terribly unpopular in the army and in Pakistani society more generally, and may have precipitated Nawaz’s downfall."

General Musharaf’s takeover could raise regional tensions –- India’s army has been placed on high alert — and present a headache for the U.S. "Despite Kashmir, there had been some optimism that dialogue between Nawaz and [India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari] Vajpayee could improve relations, but a military government in Pakistan is likely to be a lot more belligerent toward India," says Rahman. "A coup would also signal Washington’s waning influence over the Pakistani military — the U.S. explicitly warned against the military seizing power only three weeks ago." Rhetoric aside, however, a military government may be cautious about dramatically changing Pakistan’s foreign relations. Even if they’re more defiant of Washington, Pakistan’s generals remain fairly beholden to their other major backer, Beijing. It was China’s refusal to support the Kashmir incursion that may ultimately have persuaded the Pakistani generals that they had no choice but to accept Nawaz’s order to retreat. "And despite some sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism among junior officers, the military retains its role as a modernizing force in Pakistan," says Rahman. "They also know that without the financial support of Washington and the IMF, the country would go down the drain." Still, nobody’s going to be comfortable with the idea of a nuclear-armed country changing its government on a general’s say-so.