ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's powerful army wants President Asif Ali Zardari gone, but it has ruled out staging a coup, and instead is hoping for a legal ruling that could lead to Zardari's impeachment by the country's parliament, analysts and military insiders say.
Zardari suffered a setback Friday when Pakistan's Supreme Court set up a judicial commission to investigate an alleged request by his government for U.S. help in averting a coup in return for full cooperation in crushing Pakistan-based Afghan insurgents and reining in the country's premier intelligence agency.
The government fought the ruling, contending that the so-called Memogate scandal is a political matter that's already being investigated by parliament.
If the judicial panel confirms the authenticity of the offer to the U.S. — allegedly made in a secret memo drafted by a top Zardari adviser — it could trigger parliamentary impeachment proceedings against the president. Yet impeaching Zardari could prove difficult as he enjoys immunity from prosecution and his Pakistan Peoples Party controls the largest bloc of legislative seats.
The result could be a stalemate that's likely to see the army intensify its battle against Zardari — consigning Pakistan to a prolonged internal power struggle that would divert its leaders from tackling violent Islamic radicalism and repairing ties with the United States.
"Given the churn in the internal situation, this could prove distracting for the leadership and complicate decision-making," said a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation. "We're seeing a process that could play out over several months."
Among other moves, the military is expected to continue encouraging its political allies to join a political party led by Imran Khan, a sports celebrity-turned-politician, who has struck a chord with young and middle-class Pakistanis with a campaign against endemic corruption.
Top generals want to force out Zardari, the widower of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, considering him too pro-West and bent on wresting away the army's control over national security and foreign policies, analysts and military insiders said.
"It's not really about national security, although that's part of it," said Hamir Mir, the host of Pakistan's most popular current affairs television show. "The problem is that some generals suffer from a deadly disease which makes them crave a (figurehead) presidency, with the dominant role reserved for the army."
But the powerful military-run spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, advised the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, that the public would oppose a fifth military coup in 64 years, military insiders said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Pakistan's fiercely independent chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhury, made it clear earlier this month that the Supreme Court would declare a coup an act of treason. A takeover also would unify the normally fractious major political parties against the army and incur the wrath of the highly influential media, analysts said.
Like the October 1999 coup by former Gen. Pervez Musharraf, another takeover would leave Pakistan isolated internationally, bringing severe repercussions for its crisis-ridden economy, analysts said.
Despite an injection of $20 billion in American aid since 2001, Pakistan remains deeply impoverished and has accrued a $60 billion foreign debt. Loan repayments and military spending consume nearly 70 percent of the national budget, leaving very little for development or social services.
A coup would trigger a total cutoff of all U.S. assistance, and Washington could use its influence with multilateral financial institutions, like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, to block fiscal support.
The consequences would include a balance of payments crisis and skyrocketing inflation triggered by a weakening currency and commodity shortages — as well as by excessive government borrowing from the central bank.
As a result, insiders said, the army decided to pin its hopes to a petition to the Supreme Court to investigate the so-called Memogate scandal.
The scandal erupted in October when an American businessman of Pakistani descent, Mansoor Ijaz, claimed that the Pakistani ambassador in Washington asked him to deliver a memo to former Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff.
The memo purportedly sought U.S. intervention to prevent an army coup following the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. commando raid on the al Qaida founder's hideout in the northern Pakistani town of Abbottabad.
In return for U.S. help, Ijaz alleged, Zardari would move against Taliban insurgents based in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, order the capture of bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri, and roll back Pakistan's controversial nuclear weapons program.
And the memo purportedly promised the closure of the ISI branch that allegedly provides support to the Afghan Taliban and allied groups fighting the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
The ambassador, Hussain Haqqani, a close adviser to Zardari who resigned after the reports surfaced, denies writing the memo.
To the generals, the scandal provided a means of preventing Zardari from loosening the army's stranglehold on national security policy, experts said. It also put the brakes on Zardari's diplomatic initiatives that the military opposed, including seeking closer relations with the United States and Pakistan's archenemy, India.
"It is a clash of perceptions on national security," said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Center for Research and Security Studies, an independent Islamabad think tank. "The military views it through a very narrow prism and thinks any sort of compromise with the Americans or Indians would undermine Pakistan's national security."
(Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed reporting from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.