Pakistan: A Q&A Primer

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What is Pakistan's history, and why is it important?

The predominantly Muslim state of Pakistan roughly twice the size of California was created when Britain partitioned India in 1947, on the eve of decolonization. It's a desperately poor country highly reliant on international aid; more than one third of its 138 million people live below the poverty line. Its location bordering India, Iran, Afghanistan and China has given Pakistan a geopolitical significance disproportionate to its size and strength, and last year it formally proclaimed itself a nuclear power with a series of underground bomb tests in response to India's nuclear program. Pakistan has been in a state of conflict with India since its inception, and the two countries have fought three full-scale territorial wars since their partition. Tension with its traditional enemy has helped keep the military at the center of political life in the capital, Islamabad.

Why has the military seized power?

Successive military governments have ruled Pakistan for 25 of the last 40 years, and the generals regard themselves as guarantors of stability and secular order in a turbulent country beset by problems of poverty, corruption, Islamic extremism and variously hostile neighbors. Even though Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appeared for the past two years to have held the military to its promise to withdraw from political life, it remained the central institution in Pakistan. (In fact, Nawaz had relied on the military to run parts of the country where civilian authority had broken down.)

But the civilian leadership and the generals crossed swords irrevocably during the summer's Kashmir crisis. The military had carefully orchestrated a guerrilla incursion onto the Indian side of the disputed province, but the ensuing international crisis brought overwhelming foreign pressure on Islamabad. But pressure from the U.S. traditionally Pakistan's key ally and its indispensable economic benefactor as well as from its other big-power ally, China, left Nawaz no choice but to order a retreat. That immediately prompted mutinous rumblings in the military and mass protests in the streets demanding Nawaz's ouster. Faced with growing opposition since June, Nawaz moved on Tuesday to shore up his rule by firing the head of the armed forces. But that proved to be his last act in power.

Was the coup predicted?

Yes, analysts had warned since the summer that the Kashmir withdrawal had left Nawaz in a precarious position politically. The nation had rallied behind their forces in Kashmir, and military officers and millions of ordinary Pakistanis saw the order to retreat as a betrayal by Nawaz. In September, U.S. Undersecretary of State Karl Inderfurth took the unprecedented step of warning publicly that the U.S. was opposed to any unconstitutional attempts to change Pakistan's government. Back in the '80s, when Pakistan was the front line against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the two countries maintained a close alliance, U.S. views may have held more sway in Islamabad. But the end of the Cold War has diminished U.S. influence with Pakistan's military.

What does the Pakistan coup mean for the region?

The coup is likely to raise tensions with India, since its very motivation was anger at Nawaz Sharif's policy of dialogue and compromise with Pakistan's traditional foe. Attempts at dialogue between the two governments may be put on ice, but Pakistan's military has had enough experience in power to keep a lid on any potential hostilities with their more powerful neighbor. The military is also likely to take firm action against the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, particularly the Afghanistan-backed sectarian movements that attack rival Islamic sects. Despite the dramatic act of seizing power, it's unlikely that the military will attempt to revolutionize Pakistan's domestic or foreign affairs. The generals may have defied the U.S. in ousting Nawaz, but they've run the country themselves for long enough to be well aware of its economic reliance on aid from Washington, and the need to avoid acting in ways that could prompt the U.S. to cut them off.