RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN, AUG. 8 -- In the aftermath of prime minister Benazir Bhutto's dismissal on charges of corruption and nepotism, a question looms over Pakistan that has determined the country's history since independence: What does the army want?
Despite denials from military officials and leaders of the interim government that the army played any role in Monday's change of administrations, few Pakistanis or diplomats here doubt that the army leadership endorsed and perhaps even partially engineered Bhutto's dismissal.
Less clear is what the generals, who have ruled for 24 of Pakistan's 43 years of independence, are thinking about the country's domestic and foreign challenges. These include a volatile face-off with India over disputed Kashmir, civil war in Afghanistan and a close but fluid relationship with the United States.
At home, a skeptical public awaits signs of how the army, which is led by Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, intends to help fulfill President Ghulam Ishaq Khan's pledge to hold impartial elections in October.
Beg headed the army in late 1988 when a rare free election was held in Pakistan, but the failure of Bhutto's government to take root has made repetition of that event more difficult. Some Pakistanis fear that Beg has acquired political ambitions since 1988, but army officers insist that Beg has no interest in governing Pakistan.
The civilian interim government appears ready to try to neutralize Bhutto by launching corruption investigations before the October vote. Plans have been announced to establish judicial tribunals to investigate charges against Bhutto, her family and associates, and interim Premier Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi said today that the tribunals will be empowered to disqualify candidates found guilty of malfeasance, including the former prime minister. The tribunals also will be authorized to initiate criminal prosecutions, he added.
While Jatoi said the tribunals would work impartially and thoroughly, officials under Bhutto facing the probes described them as kangaroo courts designed to exclude candidates from seeking office.
Asked how the military plans to cope with a possible Bhutto candidacy, an army officer referred to the tribunals and said, "It depends on how much accountability is achieved in these 80 days. There should be accountability, yes, but no compromise on elections."
For the first time, Bhutto today lashed out at the army, accusing military intelligence of destabilizing her administration and orchestrating her ouster. She described Monday's events as a "quasi-military intervention."
Bhutto alleged that the army had forced President Khan to intervene after telling him that he should dismiss her government or the army would take matters in their own hands. She predicted that martial law would be imposed within weeks.
Tactically, Bhutto's harsh words indicated that she did not intend to fight her opponents by tackling the corruption issue head-on but would attempt to rally domestic and international opinion by accusing the military of undemocratic designs.
Jatoi said "it is very unfortunate that the former prime minister should have involved the army in this action. It's very clear that the action has been taken under the constitution."
U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley said the government's failure to stage an impartial vote "would have an impact" on the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, which has involved about $700 million in aid annually and close military ties.
"There's always the impact of whether or not a government is true to its word," Oakley said.
Historical U.S. ties with Pakistan grew stronger during the 1980s because of the two countries' support for Afghan mujaheddin who fought to expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
With the Soviets gone and with pressures mounting to direct U.S. aid to emerging democratic governments in Eastern Europe, U.S.-Pakistani relations appear to be shifting. The Pakistani military's domestic agenda in the months ahead will almost certainly affect the strength of that relationship.
Elements of the army leadership are said by Pakistani officials and diplomats to hold more hawkish views than the outgoing Bhutto government.
On Afghanistan, Bhutto referred today to the disagreements, saying, "I had no favorites" within the Afghan resistance, while the army preferred Islamic fundamentalists there.
But Pakistan's Afghan policy appears to have fallen into such disarray this summer that Bhutto's dismissal is not likely to have any immediate impact.
Moreover, some senior Pakistani officials say that now that the more dovish Bhutto is gone, the army will prove itself ready to compromise on a political settlement of the war because it will be able to take credit for the achievement and shape the outcome directly.
On Kashmir, there is wide concern about an escalation of tensions. Some Pakistani generals are said to be eager to step up a proxy war with India and to increase control over Kashmiri militants seeking independence for their disputed state.