Pakistan army chief quits

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THE POLITICAL landscape in Pakistan was plunged into confusion last night when the army chief, General Jehangir Karamat, resigned.

Forty-eight hours earlier, the general had delivered a withering speech at an army college in Lahore, drawing attention to the numerous failings of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government and proposing the setting up of a national security council, seen as a way for the military to share power with the elected government. The speech galvanised the nation, coming on the heels of intense rumours that a military coup was imminent.

But General Karamat has consistently denied any interest in mounting a coup, and last night he said he had decided to resign because the remarks he had made were seen as critical of the government and had started "an unnecessary debate". Mr Sharif accepted his resignation, and immediately appointed his known favourite to replace General Karamat (who was due to retire in January), Lieutenant-General Pervais Musharef.

General Karamat's decision to step down stunned Pakistan, and although it appeared to leave Mr Sharif even more thoroughly in control than before, it raised more questions than it answered. And far from dying away in the wake of the general's resignation, the rumours of an imminent coup only intensified. It was even suggested that something might happen during the course of the night.

The general's resignation was surprising because his measured and magisterial speech had received a great deal of support across the political spectrum, even from some of Mr Sharif's ministers.

Unlike some of his predecessors, notably General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the late military dictator, General Karamat conducted himself as army chief with propriety and restraint. Last year, when Mr Sharif became involved in a power struggle with the then chief justice, Sajjad Ali Shah, the latter called for General Karamat to deploy troops at the Supreme Court. Another general might have seized the opportunity to make his mark on the nation's history; General Karamat's response was to forward the letter to the Defence Secretary.

General Karamat's speech came days after Mr Sharif announced that he did not intend to sue The Observer in Britain for publishing a report (the truth of which he had denied) alleging that he had amassed an undeclared fortune abroad.

Although a national security council had been tried before, the general enumerated reasons for considering it. "Unlike countries with economic potential," he said, Pakistan could not afford the destabilising effects of "polarisation, vendettas and insecurity-driven expedient policies".

"Vendetta" was a reference to Mr Sharif's apparent pre-occupation with consummating the downfall of the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who is charged with crimes of greed and plunder very similar to those of which Mr Sharif himself now stands accused. By "expedient policies" the general may have meant the Islamisation Bill by which Mr Sharif intends to cement his grip on power by crippling the judiciary, having already tamed the opposition and the presidency.

Pakistan's government faces an array of difficulties. The economy is on the verge of collapse following the imposition of sanctions after June's nuclear tests. The threat of war between Iran and the Pakistan- sponsored Taliban in Afghanistan has driven Iran-Pakistan relations to a dangerous low. And the sectarian violence which has run out of control in Karachi seems to be unstoppable.