ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s powerful army was on a collision course Friday with the beleaguered civilian government after it presented conflicting evidence to a Supreme Court inquiry into a scandal dubbed “Memogate.”
The army is said to be furious about an unsigned memo that surfaced last month, supposedly soliciting Washington’s help to rein in the military and prevent a possible coup in the aftermath of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May. The memo was sent by a Pakistani American businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, who alleged that he was following instructions from Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington to convey a message that came from President Asif Ali Zardari himself.
The government denies having anything to do with the memo, but the ambassador, Husain Haqqani, has been dismissed and could face a treason charge. As the storm clouds darkened, Zardari left the country for Dubai for urgent medical tests last week and has yet to return. Officials said he is resting, on doctor’s orders, after a brief illness.
Any hopes that the two sides could have patched things up during Zardari’s absence were dashed after Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, provided an uncompromising and emotionally charged deposition to the Supreme Court inquiry.
“The Memo episode has an impact on national security,” he wrote. He added that it “unsuccessfully attempts to lower the morale of the Pakistan Army whose young officers and soldiers are laying down their lives for the security and defense of territorial integrity.”
Pakistan’s military intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, testified that, having examined the evidence, he was satisfied that the memo was not only genuine but also led back to Haqqani. Both men called for a full inquiry.
The government, in its deposition, said it had nothing “in any manner” to do with the memo. It argued that the entire affair should be handled by an already-established parliamentary committee, without involvement by the Supreme Court.
Zardari had been asked to give a deposition by Thursday but failed to do so.
“The very fact military leaders want an inquiry into the depths of the allegations shows they want to confront the civilian leadership,” said retired general and political commentator Talat Masood.
The question now being asked here is whether Zardari’s enemies are closing in for the kill.
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif petitioned the Supreme Court to get involved in the case. He has long been campaigning for Zardari to go and may see early elections as being in his interest.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, another bitter foe of Zardari’s, set the tone for the inquiry with a pointed reference to the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon.
But whether the army wants Zardari out, or just so weakened that he cannot threaten its hegemony over foreign policy and national security, is far from clear.
Most analysts here say they believe that a coup is unlikely. The army is thought to be reluctant to shoulder the blame for ousting another civilian government and unwilling to take responsibility for running the country at a time when the economy is in shambles, extremism is rampant and foreign relations are in turmoil.
“They can’t get rid of this government,” said political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi in Lahore. “They need a civilian front to deal with the United States and also to create the impression they are working within the framework of the constitution. The president will survive, at least for another two or three months.”
Other analysts argue that there is such bad blood between Zardari and Kayani that the military might be happy to see the president fall and elections called, especially under the cover of a Supreme Court decision.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani this week called the Memogate scandal a conspiracy against Parliament and warned that Parliament, the media, civil society and the world would not accept dictatorship in Pakistan. “We want democracy in the country,” he told the Senate.
On Friday, Gilani and Kayani met for three hours and “underscored the significance of national unity,” according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.
Gilani strongly rejected “rumors regarding a confrontation over the Memo issue,” while the two men said the military’s court depositions “should not be misconstrued as a standoff between the Army and the government.”
The Supreme Court is scheduled to start hearings Monday, but it is not yet clear whether Zardari will be in the country should he be called to testify.
“I don’t think this is an attempt to force Zardari out, but it can snowball from here,” said Cyril Almeida, an editor at Dawn, an influential English-language newspaper. “It’s hard for any of them to walk it back. A lot depends on how Zardari responds and the state of his health.”
Under even more pressure than Zardari is Haqqani, the former ambassador to the United States.
A longtime critic of Pakistan’s military and its ties with radical Islam, Haqqani sits at the center of the storm — a victim, in his supporters’ eyes at least, of the civil-military divide and the deterioration in relations with the United States.
Former U.S. national security adviser James L. Jones came to Haqqani’s defense late Friday, declaring in an affidavit that Ijaz had approached him about the proposal outlined in the memo but had never mentioned the ambassador.
Questioning Ijaz’s testimony, Jones also said the businessman had first contacted him about the subject “a few days before May 9,” the date on which Ijaz claims Haqqani had first telephoned him to make the proposal.
The Supreme Court barred Haqqani from leaving Pakistan. His lawyer, human rights activist Asma Jahangir, said the case appears to have been “pre-judged,” despite the fact that no police investigation has been initiated and no formal charges have been brought.
“You have to hear from someone before you start restricting their movements,” she said. “An investigation has to start with some legal process, but there is no case against him.”