ISLAMABAD - Relations between Pakistan's powerful army and the country's elected civilian politicians deteriorated sharply on Wednesday after Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani sacked the de facto deputy defense minister.
The removal of retired Lt. General Naeem Khalid Lodhi as secretary of the defense ministry - the second highest ranking position after the defense minister, who is a civilian politician, prompted warnings of a sharpening of the country's civil-military divide.
Senior Western diplomats warned that the latest developments in Pakistan posed a dilemma for the Obama administration, which is seeking to repair damaged relations with Pakistan, after the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO airstrike in November.
"This is a critical situation. Infighting between the army and the civilians poses a tough challenge for the global community," warned one Western ambassador in Islamabad who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity. The ambassador said "a deepening rift between the army and civilian politicians destroys any hope of getting Pakistan's rulers to unite and support the U.S. for stabilizing Afghanistan."
But a senior Pakistani army officer who also spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity said, the army was in no mood to stage a coup. Pakistan has been ruled by the army for almost half of its 64-year life as an independent state.
Relations have remained tense between Pakistan's ruling coalition, led by President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani, and the influential army since the discovery of a memo allegedly passed to the Obama administration through the former Pakistani ambassador in Washington. Pakistan's supreme court has ordered an investigation to determine the facts behind allegations that the memo sought U.S. pressure on Pakistan's military during the tumultuous days after a U.S. commando raid killed Osama bin Laden.
Some analysts have warned that tensions have risen to the point that Pakistan's civilian politicians may be seeking to replace Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the Army chief. On Wednesday, Lodhi's dismissal was quickly followed by speculation that the move is a first step to replace Kayani. However, Ikram Sehgal, a respected Pakistani commentator, warned that "the path of confrontation adopted by the government will backfire. Replacing the arm''s chief will only enlarge the ongoing crisis."
A second Western ambassador who also spoke on condition of anonymity said Western governments including the U.S. had recently urged Zardari and Gilani to show restraint in their dealings with the army.
"It is obvious to many of us that the government has decided to provoke a situation with the army where they want to put pressure on the generals," said the diplomat. "I don't think this tactic will work."
The Pakistani army official said the army was not looking to seize power, contradicting growing rumors across the country, suggesting an imminent army takeover. Western diplomats agreed that the army, already involved with security duties in the campaign against Taliban strongholds in areas along the Afghan border, was deeply reluctant to seize control of the country.
"I can't see the army staging a coup, though this path to confrontation by civilian politicians will not be in anyone's interest," said the first Western ambassador.