With thousands of young Pakistanis besieging their capital to demand the ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan -- a key element in the United States' plan to withdraw from neighboring Afghanistan by the end of 2016 -- is slipping into political anarchy. Only one year after the country's first-ever democratic transfer of power, the elected government in Pakistan is at risk of another military takeover. Yet Washington is showing little sign that it is paying the situation the urgent attention it requires.
The youthful horde in Islamabad -- led by former cricket player and current leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) party Imran Khan, and a religious teacher from Canada named Tahir ul Qadri -- demands electoral reforms, and Sharif's removal from office for corruption and alleged fraud in the May 2013 election, which gave him a huge plurality in the parliament. From its headquarters in Rawalpindi, adjacent to the capital, the powerful army waits, calculating its next moves.
A senior general, communicating with me directly, summed up the situation succinctly:
"This is a small-time riot against a small-time government. The army is neutral and not in a position to confront a crowd, nor intends to do so. The government has gradually conceded on every point as the pressure continued to build up, except on the matter of the PM's [prime minister's] resignation. The stand-off now is about the PM holding on. All arguments about democracy or constitution are irrelevant since the sitting government is there in spite of the law and not because of the law."
If enough generals in the high command share these views, the portents are not good for Sharif. The new army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif (no relation), is not known for being very politically inclined. Nor does he have the intelligence background of his predecessor. But the job and the conditions on the ground may change the man who commands the 500,000-strong Pakistani army. Pakistan's politicians would be foolish to test the general's patience.
A coup, whether it would become the Pakistani military's fourth direct seizure of government power in the country's history, or whether it might be clothed in civilian garb, would throw the United States into a quandary. Washington would have to decide to either allow Section 7008 of the U.S. Foreign Operations Appropriations Act to kick in, with its prohibition on U.S. aid to governments that take power by ousting elected leaders, or to uncomfortably override that law and allow a solution similar to the one in Egypt -- where the aid was initially frozen when President Mohammed Morsi was ousted and then eventually released, with Congressional authorization, once former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was sworn in as president -- to emerge over time.
Whether or not the Islamabad confrontation degrades into an ouster of Sharif's government, it is obstructing the needed focus by political leadership on Pakistan's other existential conflict: its war against the country's Taliban movement in the ill-governed Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border. The army's current offensive in North Waziristan was so sufficiently delayed (and telegraphed to militant leaders via the public debate about peace talks versus military action for months before the operation began) that it has failed to capture Taliban leaders or destroy their forces. As before, the government has not provided any master plan for the future economic and political integration of those tribal areas into Pakistan -- and no such vision can emerge amid the conflict in Islamabad.
Khan has fueled the Islamabad protest with six demands of the government, of which only two (the resignations of Sharif and of his brother, Shahbaz, the chief minister of the politically-powerful Punjab province) would seem infeasible. (Though rumors have surfaced that the brother may be sacrificed to save the prime minister.) The demands that the government should find doable, however, are the creation of a fairer national election commission, reforms to prevent electoral fraud, a recount of last year's votes in several parliamentary districts, and action against those found to have taken part in vote rigging.
As dangerous as the Islamabad crisis is (and as frenzied as the media coverage within Pakistan is), it also is more soluble because it is restricted, so far, to the capital. Similar protests have not struck other cities, which continue to struggle with the nationwide blackouts that have become the energy-starved country's norm, and the rising specter of inflation.
Another hopeful change is that, after recent years of freer news media and a more independent Supreme Court, a direct coup by Pakistan's army is not as easy as in decades past. While previous Pakistani courts ratified military coups with what they called the "doctrine of necessity," that ersatz legal idea was effectively outlawed by Pakistan's latest constitution. The military would need strong public support and at least a nod from the judiciary to effect a takeover, whether through a "soft coup" nominally led by civilians, or by an old-style seizure of the government with tanks and guns.
While the United States has limited leverage with which to encourage a Pakistani settlement of this conflict, the best solution would be a compromise that allowed the judiciary to play a neutral role in assessing the allegations of election fraud. Sharif should then vigorously address the crises of the economy, energy, and governance. The military could then concentrate on its battle against the militants and on finding a modus vivendi with the United States and Afghanistan after America's planned troop pullout. An "Egypt on the Indus" is not the optimal solution.
Shuja Nawaz is the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., and author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and The Wars Within.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images