Islamabad: Pakistan’s political and military establishments were set for a showdown as Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani sacked the defence secretary Wednesday after coming under attack from the military.
In a move that caught many by surprise, Gilani asserted his authority by dismissing Naeem Khalid Lodhi, a retired lieutenant general widely seen to be close to army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Cabinet Secretary Nargis Sethi was quickly asked to take charge of the defence secretary’s post, which Lodhi had held since November last year, Geo News reported.
A peeved Kayani called for an emergency meeting of the army’s top commanders Thursday.
Pakistan’s all-powerful army warned earlier Wednesday that the prime minister’s recent “critical comments” of the military would have “serious ramifications” with “potentially grievous consequences for the country”.
The public criticism of the prime minister by the army and Gilani’s counter quickly fuelled speculation of a possible military takeover in the world’s only nuclear-armed Islamic state.
While sacking him, Gilani charged Lodhi with “misconduct” and taking “unlawful steps” over what has come to be known as memogate — a row that has pitted the military against the civilian leadership.
Glani said Lodhi had created “misunderstanding between the state institutions” by submitting statements of Kayani and Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, who heads the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), on the scandal.
The Pakistani judiciary is probing a memo delivered to former US military chief Admiral Mike Mullen by Pakistani American Mansoor Ijaz seeking to prevent a military coup which President Asif Ali Zardari feared after the killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden by US commandos in May 2011.
Gilani told a Chinese daily that Kayani and Pasha acted illegally by making unilateral submissions to a Supreme Court inquiry on the memogate.
The Inter-Services Public Relations, the military’s media arm, said Gilani had termed the responses of Kayani and Pasha in the court as illegal and unconstitutional.
“There can be no allegation more serious than what the prime minister has levelled against (Kayani and Pasha) and has unfortunately charged the officers (with) violation of the constitution.
“This has very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country,” it warned.
The dramatic developments come at a time of growing turmoil in Pakistan, which has been increasingly at loggerheads with the US over the conduct of the war in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Many in Pakistan also believe that the military is quietly siding with cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, whose recent public meetings have attracted tens of thousands.
With Zardari denying that he had contemplated stepping down and with Gilani taking a hard line vis-a-vis the army, some fear that chances of a military coup cannot be ruled out.
Retired army officer Talat Masood told India’s CNN-IBN channel: “The military thinks it is being blamed very badly in public. I hope they don’t take over but it is very much possible.”
Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has had four spells of military rule — headed by Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf.