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Wednesday, October 13, 1999 Published at 16:27 GMT 17:27 UK

World: South Asia

Pakistan's generals do it by the book

Keeping guard outside the home of PM Nawaz Sharif

It was, according to the experts, a "textbook coup d'état".

Pakistan in crisis
Within minutes of General Pervez Musharraf being dismissed as chief of Pakistan's military, his troops had launched their takeover.

As with any coup, their aim was to seize power suddenly, forcibly and illegally from the existing civilian government.

No mean task in Pakistan, a country with a population of 140 million and a democratically elected prime minister.

But, as Chris Smith of King's College's Centre for Defence Studies, points out, coups have been common in Pakistan. Planning for them forms part of the military's "institutional memory".

It might be summarised in the following steps:

  • Seize the political leader you plan to depose
  • Take control of main government offices and other senior politicians
  • Seize control of public communications channels - television, radio, telephone networks and, now, the Internet
  • Shut down all ports, airport and land borders
  • Deploy troops on the streets
  • Close the banks

Capturing the political leader usually means surrounding his home with firepower and putting him under house arrest, says Mr Smith.

"Killing him might make a martyr of him and you don't want to parade him though the streets and make a spectacle of him."

[ image: Pakistani troops capture the TV station - a crucial move in conducting a coup]
Pakistani troops capture the TV station - a crucial move in conducting a coup
Taking control of the television output is not an act of supreme vanity on behalf of the incoming military ruler, rather an established tactic for stemming dissent.

The idea is to strip the opposition of any means of organising a counter-attack.

"There's going to be opposition to the new regime, so you remove the opposition's ability to communicate, which inevitably falls to the TV or radio, or telephone," says Charles Heyman, editor of Janes World Armies.

"It enables you to tell your story and means that no one else can tell theirs."

In getting their message across, Pakistan's military masters fell back on the classic ploy of casting themselves as a praetorian guard. Their aim - to portray themselves as sole defenders of the nation's interests rather than power-crazed despots.

In Pakistan, officers also shut down all mobile telephone networks since poor landlines there mean cellphones are de rigeur among the rich and powerful.

[ image: Mobile phone networks were shutdown, along with international land lines]
Mobile phone networks were shutdown, along with international land lines
The fact that local telephone networks were left largely untouched in Pakistan, meant the Internet was still operational.

The evening timing of the Pakistan coup was also a calculated move, says Mr Heyman.

"By that time everybody has gone home. It's very difficult to get crowds on the streets to protest against you .

"You consolidate power overnight so that when people wake up in the morning, they wake up to a fait accompli."

Sealing airports, ports and cross-border road links is crucial in order to prevent opponents from leaving the country and forming a government in exile.

"It also stops foreign corespondents from getting in," notes Mr Heyman.

Resting troops

Given the constant threat of hostile opposition taking to the streets, the need for a visible military presence would seem clearly apparent.

However, reports from Pakistan on Wednesday reveal a notable lack of soldiers in the open. But again, this is all part of protocol, says Mr Heyman.

"What you want to avoid is exhausting your soldiers in the early hours. But you have a large number of soldiers close so that if trouble stirs you can deploy them in a hurry."

The final step in this first wave of action comes the following morning, when the coup leaders will order the closure of all banks.

The aim is to prevent bankrupting the country through an immediate outflow of foreign currency.

State of emergency

When the banks do reopen, says Mr Smith, it will be made very hard for investors to withdraw their capital.

The actual transfer of constitutional power is most likely done through declaring a state of emergency, which tends to suspend the everyday laws of government.

But even with all these bases covered, a successful coup is not necessarily a done deed. It is often said, though not always true, that while the army may have a monopoly on force, it also has to act in the people's interests.

Initially, it seems, this may be the Pakistani generals' trump card.

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