Politically at least, Pakistan is a land of possibility, and a military coup is looking increasingly possible. Do not confuse possibility with opportunity – where anyone could hope to climb the greasy pole of power. Political patronage remains concentrated in the hands of the country's traditional ruling elites: Punjabi landowners, Sindhi industrialists, and the Army.
Among them, the tectonic plates of power and influence are in constant flux, producing a carousel of fortunes. The devastating floods which continue to drown the country have, again, upset the kaleidoscope of power; the fallout is impossible to predict.
Civilian governments in Islamabad know they are only ever minutes away from being deposed. Just up the road in Rawalpindi is the Army's General Headquarters, known locally as GHQ, and home to the notorious 111 Brigade. Every aspirant General has needed to deploy its infantrymen when dismissing an opponent's government. And there are stirrings in the barracks again.
The government's faltering response to the floods has been damaging. Indeed, opposition to President Asif Ali Zardari reached a new high-watermark after he refused to cut short his European tour and return to Pakistan. Instead, the Army has been left to coordinate the entire rescue effort with almost no input from the civilian government.
Could the Army dismiss yet another civilian government? Najam Sethi, editor-in-chief of the influential Friday Times, broke rank earlier this month by saying: "I know this is definitely being discussed. There is a perception in the army that you need good governance to get out of the economic crisis and there is no good governance."
Away from the floods the Army is busy, too. Chief of the Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has secured a second term until the end of 2013. A former chief of Pakistan's much-feared and shadowy intelligence service, the Inter-Service Intelligence [ISI], he enjoys de facto control over intelligence, defence and foreign policy. His reappointment suggests the impotence of Zardari, who would rather have jettisoned his increasingly powerful General.
Last month, Kiyani's growing sphere of influence was on display again. During a crucial meeting with President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, Kiyani convinced Karzai to dump his normally India-leaning security adviser, Amrullah Saleh.
Acts such as these underscore the efforts being invested by the Army to consolidate their position at a time of renewed public confidence in the Army. This goodwill marks a significant revival in their fortunes after support for the Army – ordinarily very high in Pakistan – plummeted following the Red Mosque Siege in 2007.
The Red Mosque, a seminary located in the heart of Islamabad's diplomatic quarter, had provoked a massive confrontation with the government after trying to impose Shariah law in the capital. Its students rampaged through the streets, burning down music and film stores, ordering women to cover up, and kidnapping 'prostitutes.'
The Army responded with brute force. Tanks, helicopter gunships and infantrymen from the 111 Brigade pounded the seminary, killing scores of students . It was a watershed moment for most Pakistanis, their own "Waco" siege.
The floods have allowed the Army to restore much needed pride by reengaging in humanitarian and relief work – services for which they are regularly deployed in Pakistan's most destitute provinces.
But it is not just the Army who stand to gain from flood relief initiatives. Official inaction has also presented terrorist groups with an opportunity to provide social welfare services.
For example, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) has had a number of its relief centers closed. JuD are linked to the banned terrorist group Lashkar e-Taiba, which staged the 2008 attacks on Mumbai. A spokesman for the group said, "There is no reason for this action. We are providing meals twice a day to the affected persons in Pir Sabak. We are not in competition with the army but it seems to feel threatened by our work."
All this presents a serious challenge for General Kiyani. The Army is still fighting Taliban insurgents along the unforgiving terrain of the Durand line. 60,000 troops have now been diverted into relief work where their efforts are hampered by sporadic fighting with militants seeking to enter the affected areas. Then, too, there is ongoing tension with India which continues to preoccupy Pakistani minds.
Kiyani has consequently secured massive increases for the defence budget, despite widespread cutbacks elsewhere. Ordinary Pakistanis are, for example, bearing the brunt of sporadic but daily gas and electricity outages, unchecked inflation, and an unprecedented upturn in terrorist violence.
Although at least 16 relief centers operated by terrorists have been closed in the North-Western Frontier Province (now known as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), the implications of the floods extend far beyond relief for those affected. If the government and Army are unable to deliver aid effectively, the Taliban and associated movements could capture large swathes of Pakistan. If the Army's influence and prestige continues to grow, a coup is not unimaginable. After all, the Army already enjoys almost complete autonomy over some of the most sensitive policy areas: intelligence, defence and foreign affairs.
The leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), Altaf Hussain, recently called on "patriotic Generals" to initiate martial law and sweep aside interfering politicians. Certainly, the civilian government is increasingly seen as meddling for political gain.
Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmad is known to be "deeply unhappy"say officials from the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), trying to ensure that their support is given preference for aid. Following the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, Ahmad was appointed Chief Military Coordinator of Relief Commission, and later Deputy Chairman of the Earthquake Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Authority.
A military coup would present a mixed bag to the West. Certainly, military governments tend to produce more stable administrations in Pakistan (discounting the chaos that plagued the last days of Pervez Musharraf). Yet, it would also strengthen the Army's hand – and longstanding view – that the West should cut a deal with the Taliban as part of some power-sharing agreement.
This approach is fraught with difficulty. In the embattled tribal provinces Pakistan has already tried to negotiate with the Taliban, signing around six different peace deals in the process. They have frequently failed within months of being enacted prompting a renewal of hostilities. In the meantime, of course, the Taliban are able to regroup and take stock of their position.
Yet, the misguided view that we might be able to reach an amicable agreement with the Taliban is already finding supporting in some parts of Washington; a change of government in Pakistan might signal its triumph.