A month ago, Pakistan came close to a political breakdown that could have triggered a military coup. How that crisis developed -- and how it was ultimately defused -- illuminates the larger story of a country whose frontier region President Obama recently described as "the most dangerous place in the world."
A detailed account of the March political confrontation emerged last week during a visit to Islamabad by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Adm. Mike Mullen. As described by U.S. and Pakistani officials, it's a story of political brinkmanship and, ultimately, of a settlement brokered by the Obama administration.
At stake was the survival of Pakistani democracy. Allies of President Asif Ali Zardari attempted to cripple his political rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The opposition leader took to the streets in response, joining a "long march" to Islamabad to demand the reinstatement of Pakistan's deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. The march threatened a violent street battle that could have forced Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief of staff, to intervene.
The confrontation demonstrated the fragility of Pakistani politics. But it also showed that after some initial mistakes, the three key players -- Zardari, Sharif and Kiyani -- were able to defuse the crisis. The lesson for nervous Pakistan-watchers is that however enfeebled the country's elite may be, it isn't suicidal.
"I think Pakistan's politicians are growing up. They are realizing that you have to meet the people's needs or you get kicked out," says Shuja Nawaz, the author of "Crossed Swords," a study of the Pakistani military.
For the Obama administration, the Pakistani crisis posed the first big diplomatic test. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, joined by Holbrooke and Mullen, helped coax the Pakistani officials back from the brink. This intervention was deftly handled, but it deepened America's involvement in Pakistani politics -- a process that is creating a dangerous anti-American backlash.
The crisis began in late February when the Zardari-backed Supreme Court ruled that Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, the chief minister of Punjab, could not hold office. The governor of Punjab, also a Zardari loyalist, then seized control of that powerful province -- in what Pakistani commentators saw as a putsch by the president against his chief rival.
The lawyers' movement began its march on March 12, pledging to occupy Islamabad until the government restored Chaudhry to his post. Zardari sent a police force known as the Rangers into the streets of Lahore, apparently hoping to intimidate Sharif and the marchers. But Sharif evaded the police and joined the protesters as they headed north toward Islamabad.
Kiyani then faced the moment of decision. According to U.S. and Pakistani sources, Zardari asked the army chief to stop the march and protect Islamabad. Kiyani refused, after discussing the dilemma with his friend Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, Kiyani called Sharif and told him to return home to Lahore, according to one source. And he called the leader of the lawyers' movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, and told him to halt in the city of Gujranwala and wait for a government announcement.
Pressure on Zardari was also building within his People's Party. According to a U.S. official, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani told the president on the night of March 15 that he would resign if Chaudhry wasn't reinstated. (Zardari's camp says it was only a rumor of resignation.) In any event, Gillani went on television at 5 the next morning to announce that the former chief justice would return. The crisis was over.
Pressure for compromise came from Clinton and Holbrooke, in phone calls to Zardari and Sharif. According to Pakistani sources, the American officials signaled to Sharif that they wouldn't object to his becoming president or prime minister some day. Another key intermediary was David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, who urged dialogue with Sharif.
Last week's visit by Holbrooke and Mullen reinforced the deal. They saw the key players and came away hoping that the three could form a united front against the Taliban insurgency in the western frontier areas, rather than continuing their political squabbling. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, praised Holbrooke's diplomacy. "He brings hope that complex problems will be resolved."
On the political scorecard, Zardari came out a loser and Sharif and Gillani as winners. But the decisive actor was Kiyani, who managed to defuse the crisis without bringing the army into the streets.