There was a moment a couple of weeks ago when Pakistan may have teetered perilously close to a military coup. It came when thousands of demonstrators were heading to the capital on a "long march" to demand the reinstatement of sacked judges. There were fears that once the demonstrations reached Islamabad, they could become violent in the most serious political unrest facing the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari since he was elected last September.
Yet what did the army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, do with this litmus test for democracy? He pulled back from the brink and declined to send in the troops. President Zardari, under heavy pressure from the United States, caved in. He reinstated the judiciary led by chief judge Iftikhar Chaudhry and supported by Mr Zardari's nemesis, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.
General Kiyani may not be so cautious next time. Yesterday's attack by gunmen on a police academy outside Lahore will only reinforce the impression among Pakistan's neighbours and Western allies that the weak government is being increasingly undermined by militants now striking at will across the country. That is presumably why US President Barack Obama intends to continue using drones in Pakistan's tribal areas against "high value" targets while paying lip service to Pakistani "sovereignty" – a decision that will only feed the rampant anti-American feelings in the country.
Pakistan has been ruled for more than half of its 62-year history by the military, which even when not holding the reins of power remains an influential political force. The military's strategy, based on past experience, appears to be: let the civilians screw up and then step in.
General Kiyani, a smooth operator who was in Washington and London earlier this month, understands that Pakistan's democratic institutions are in dire need of shoring up. But he also needs to build up morale in the army, which was at rock bottom when he took over and remains low. For now he is holding his cards close to his chest, although like other US protégés, General Zia-ul-Haq and General Musharraf, he may come to be persuaded that the country is ripe for a national saviour.
But such a course would be a disaster, according to Pakistan analyst Farzana Shaikh who has just completed a book entitled Making Sense of Pakistan. "In the short run, there is a desire for the iron grip of a military ruler," she said yesterday. "But anyone with the long view will tell you this iron grip over half of Pakistan's history has been responsible for the death of politics."
So what is to be done about Pakistan? First, the country's political elite needs to show signs of a maturity that has manifestly eluded it since the beginning of the year. Zardari, Sharif et al have been fiddling while Rome burns. And second, America needs to encourage the rebirth of politics, because until now, US backing for military coups has done more harm than good.