By Dr Shalini Chawla
Pakistan is struggling with a serious political and economic crisis and the state is showing some unprecedented trends which invariably indicate that the crisis is far from settling
anytime soon. The image of the all-powerful military seems to be tarnished with blatant and relentless targeting by former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek -e- Insaf (PTI). Political leadership turning against the military is not new in Pakistan, and historical evidence suggests a classic cycle of events in Pakistan’s political landscape. A promising and confident civilian leadership comes to power with full-f ledged support of the military, but typically the civil-military bonhomie has a short-term expiry date. The civilian leadership overestimates its capacity to dictate terms in ‘strategic areas’ and loses the support of the deep state. In case the military has a choice of appointing another political face, the ruling party takes a blow and political leaders land behind bars on charges of corruption and money laundering. No political leader has managed to come into power, or for that matter, sustain its position of power, without the support of the army. Democratic regimes between 1988-1999 changed frequently, especially if the agenda of the elected governments challenged the power and functioning of the army. During this period, there were four elections, and both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif returned to power twice.
Imran Khan’s tenure was no different. After winning the general elections in 2018, which were termed “Selection 2018,” Imran Khan enjoyed his position till he breached the ‘unwritten red lines’ and started to assert his independence in decision-making in the areas that remain sacrosanct to the military. Khan’s equation with the military started to change given his anti- American position, his antagonistic statements towards the Muslim world on raising the issue of Kashmir in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and his inability to handle the economic crisis. However, the turning point in the relationship was Imran’s closeness with the former Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed. The whispers about Faiz Hameed being appointed as the next army chief and an unprecedented delay f rom Imran in giving a nod to the military’s decision to replace Faiz Hameed with Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum as the ISI chief did not go well with the military.
The question that arises is, if there is a predictable cycle of civil-military amity and rancour in Pakistan, then how is the ongoing crisis different?
The military’s experiment with Imran Khan has clearly backfired, and there is strong anti- establishment sentiment dominating the public opinion in the country. Anti-establishment slogans were raised in the province of Punjab, Pakistan’s most important province. Khan’s narrative of the military being submissive to foreign powers (Washington) and supporting corrupt political leaders (PPP and PML-N) has intensified since his ouster f rom office in April 2022 after a close no-confidence motion. While Khan tried to balance his narratives by issuing some pro-military statements when his tif f with the army started, however, as he was
clear about not having any support f rom the military, he upped the ante on the military generals. He compared the Army Chief to Mir Jafar, the treacherous Bengal General. The critical factor here is the lack of ample actions f rom the military to control this crisis, driven by Imran Khan’s narratives. Reports published in the Pakistani media suggest that there is a strong lobby within the military (serving and retired) supporting Imran Khan. The establishment took punitive actions against the retired military o f f icers and reportedly withdrew post-retirement benefits, including the pensions of five retired army officers who issued statements supporting Khan. For the first time, there is an apparent division within the army, and there is strong speculation that any strong action against Imran Khan could lead to a major upheaval within the military establishment. This could be a restraining factor for General Bajwa, who is about to finish his term in November. The General is eligible for another extension and the ruling party would benefit in the elections with Bajwa continuing in the position. Although the army’s own media arm, the Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) made a statement that General Bajwa’s term will not be extended. Pakistan’s power play cannot be predicted and never fails to surprise us.
At present, seemingly revolutionary public opinion is challenging not only the military’s image, but also its infallible ability and conviction to guard its position as the ‘ultimate guardian and saviour of the nation’s integrity.’ The military in Pakistan has evolved as a highly organised and professional force, the power of which does not f low only f rom the barrel of a gun but its deep involvement in all critical facets of the country. The Pakistan Army’s strong political role stems f rom the national security paradigm of the state. It has managed to run the governance of the country for more than 30 years and, in fact, every single military regime was welcomed by the people of Pakistan. In all the phases of the transition f rom civilian to military rule, the masses were exhausted by the corrupt political leaders who managed to accumulate vast personal assets by misusing national resources. The military’s deep engagement in the political structure facilitated its vast economic expansion, and today, the military operates a multi-billion dollar corporate empire across diverse sectors. The military managed to create and sustain an autonomous structure with financial freedom and flexibility for itself. The allocations for the defence budget remain high and unquestionable in Pakistan. The economic crisis does not impact or squeeze the military expenditure, and the military and nuclear build-up have continued at a constant rate. The deep state rationalises the military build-up as insurance to deal with Pakistan’s implacable enemy, India.
The military has very cautiously but assertively maintained its dominance over some key areas: 1) Defence budget and spending; 2) Nuclear weapons and doctrine; 3) Pakistan’s policy vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan; 4) Relations with the major powers- the US and China (are primarily conducted by the military).
Given the power dynamics so heavily tilted in favour of the military establishment, the current situation raises some serious questions: Is Imran’s massive following indicative of a democratic revolution in Pakistan? Is the military losing its power and the power dynamics in the country altering?
Although Imran’s street power and his extensive presence on the social media cannot be ruled out as a beginning of some defining shifts, alterations in overall power dynamics are unlikely anytime soon in Pakistan. The military is too deeply entrenched in the politico- economic dynamics to lose control over the narratives that have emerged in the last few months. The lack of stringent actions by the military against Khan can be attributed to the fact that there is far too much at stake for the country at this point in time: much-awaited negotiations with the International Monetary Fund are going on; the Financial Action Task Force is scheduled to make a decisive visit to Pakistan soon; the nation is trying to revive its dented relationship with the United States; tensions with the Afghan Taliban have intensified over the fencing of the Durand Line; the Tehrik-Taliban Pakistan is holding its head high and the intensified Baloch resentment is manifesting in frequent attacks on the security establishment and Chinese nationals in Pakistan. Taking any strong action against Khan would mean risking civil unrest in Pakistan, which the state cannot afford at the moment.
If one has to learn f rom past experience, it looks like the military will make serious efforts to go the judicial way to restrain Khan at the appropriate time. There are already charges of terrorism and using foreign funding levied against him. Pakistan’s history also provides ample evidence of the use of brute force to curb opposition voices, like rebellions in East Pakistan, resentment in Balochistan, and Pashtun grievances. While Khan’ s narratives are not likely to dent the military’s power anytime soon, the political crisis has certainly added to the polarisation of Pakistani civil society between the political camps, and that would pose severe challenge for the state. In the past, polarisation of the society has worked in favour of the military establishment and allowed it to leverage the divisions for power expansion. Will the looming divisions further facilitate the establishment?
Article by Dr Shalini Chawla (Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies)
The article was originally published in Pakistan Reader