South Asia

In Dumping Imran Khan, Pakistan Army Seeks Face-Saving, Not Course-Correction

The army remains doggedly averse to cede its monopoly over defining the ‘national interest’ and formulating the national security and foreign policies.

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Apparently the most quoted Vladimir in Europe these days is not Putin but Lenin, who had famously said: There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen! Something similarly fast-paced, but certainly not revolutionary, seems to be happening in Pakistan as well.

After failing to dislodge the Pakistan army-installed Prime Minister Imran Khan through protests, the opposition parties have brought a no-confidence motion against him in the national assembly. The move was signed by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led jointly by the former president, Asif Ali Zardari, and his son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, and a combined opposition group called the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).

The PDM is led by the wily cleric-politician Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e Islam (JUI) and includes the three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) as well as smaller Pashtun and Baloch nationalist parties. The PDM had originally sought to oust Khan through a pincer of street agitation and parliamentary manoeuvring but was stonewalled by the army, which stood firmly behind its chosen man.

The PPP, which was a founding component of the PDM, parted ways with it over tactics, including agitation, potentially resigning from the assemblies and directly confronting the army. There was also a sizeable part of the PML-N leadership, led by Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif – himself a contender for the high office – that favoured an approach similar to the PPP’s, including cutting a deal with the army and have it ditch Imran Khan. But despite its Khan project being a disaster for Pakistan’s economy and governance, the junta clung on to its fig leaf tightly for over three years, and spurned the PPP and the younger Sharif’s overtures. The indications now, however, are that while proclaiming to remain neutral, the army has given a nod to the opposition’s bid. So, what gives?

Also read: Why Have We Become Targets of Hatred, Asks Pakistan’s Shia Community

A constellation of events and issues put the army on the defensive. First and foremost, the Imran-Bajwa hybrid regime mismanaged the economy and inflicted an incredible financial pain upon the nation. Unlike the overt military dictatorships of the past, where regimes led by the Generals Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf had presided over relative prosperity thanks to the tremendous US, western and/or Arab largesse for doing their bidding, the current hybrid regime remains internationally isolated and hasn’t receive any such windfall.

The Imran-Bajwa duo miscalculated that China would replace the US as Pakistan’s chief financial benefactor. But that didn’t happen. The regime discovered that unlike the US, the Chinese are both stingy paymasters and hard taskmasters. With a clueless economic team at the helm, which Khan and the army kept changing rapidly, even the high-markup Chinese loans and investments through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) effectively stalled. Khan cozying up to Turkey and Malaysia rubbed the Saudis and the UAE the wrong way and they tightened their purse strings.

Pakistan eventually had to seek an IMF facility for the umpteenth time but not before the economy was on the verge of disaster. The rising imports, surging global commodity prices and the weakening rupee, and food and fuel prices took a massive toll on the middle and lower-middle classes, and crushed the poor. By 2021 the “Land of the Pure” was being dubbed the land of the poor by the Economist.

While the public’s anger was initially directed at Khan, it also pointed the finger of blame at his patron and handler – the Pakistan army. Nawaz capitalised on the discontent and went after the army all guns blazing. He called out, by name, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the former Director General Inter-services Intelligence (DG ISI) General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry for not only orchestrating his ouster and disqualification from any political office, but also for derailing the economy and foisting upon the country an incredibly inept prime minister. The army felt the heat but wasn’t willing to let go of Khan, as it feared that given an even playing field, Nawaz will mostly likely be voted back to power and might pursue legal proceedings against them, as he tried to do against General Musharraf.

The army remained unrepentant and unwilling to take the blame for its disastrous Khan project. It also did not want to concede an inch over the national security and foreign policies or curtail its massive involvement in all manner of for-profit businesses. What the junta sought was to gradually pull back from its in-your-face control of the country through the current hybrid arrangement and revert to controlling the levers of power from behind the scenes, as it did in the 1990s and from 2008 to 2018.

The event that eventually seems to have convinced the junta to change horses was Khan’s insistence, last fall, to retain General Faiz as the DG ISI and a not-so-concealed desire to promote him to the COAS come November 2022, when General Bajwa retires. The Bajwa-Imran-Faiz triad had worked together quite smoothly, with the prime minister essentially doing the army’s bidding without questioning or invoking any rules and the brass ignoring his occasional sulks and consistent incompetence as the chief executive. But as a rule of thumb, the Pakistan army gets to pick favourites among the civilians; it doesn’t allow civilians to pick their favourite generals.

The Pakistan army is many things but one thing it is not: ill-disciplined. For all practical purposes, chief is the army and army the chief. An army chief is essentially the primus inter pares, bound to uphold the institutional interests and the ISI despite its influence and reach, is still supposed to and does strictly follow its remit laid down by the COAS representing the army. Khan has literally been the army’s spoiled brat, but this was a red line that even he could not be allowed to cross. A cloak-and-dagger game subsequently started.

Also read: Killings, Suppression and the Blasphemy Ruse: Pakistan’s Minorities Are Beleaguered

The army started signalling that it is withdrawing its unconditional support to Khan through measures such as the new DG ISI Lt General Nadeem Anjum directing the agency’s operatives to stay out of politics and minimising interference in local bodies elections. The top brass also made direct and indirect contacts with the opposition, including the PML-N, and communicated that were the latter to bring an in-house change, the army would remain above the fray. In return for this wink and nod, the army sought assurances that the PML-N supremo and his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif would refrain from publicly indicting the generals and otherwise tone down their rhetoric as well.

And not just that, the army also appears to have asked for guarantees that were it to allow a controlled demolition of its hybrid setup, the new dispensation would not prosecute any constitutional and legal cases against the members of the brass responsible for subverting the previous PML-N government and the 2018 elections heist. Obvious indicators of the army plotting to let Imran Khan be the fall guy for its disastrous experiment are the prime minister’s visible exasperation with his patrons, and several of his allies and partisans, who are tight with the army, jumping ship. In a brazen jibe at the army pretending to be neutral, Khan recently proclaimed at a rally that the Almighty has empowered humans to choose between right and wrong and “only animals are neutral”. But his goose appears to be cooked.

It came to fruition on General Bajwa’s watch that in 2018 but installing Khan as its puppet prime minister had been the army’s longstanding project, fostered by several army and ISI chiefs. The junta deployed tremendous resources to organise his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI or the Justice Movement) and herded the army establishment-allied politicians to join him. It harnessed the media to both project Khan as the nation’s saviour and his opponents as vile and corrupt. The army even co-opted the judiciary to knock out Nawaz, to pave the way for Khan’s installation. Now that the brass wants Khan to fall on the sword for their sake, he has very little wherewithal on his own to resist them with. The components of the scaffolding that upheld the façade of this Potemkin Democracy, are being withdrawn one by one. While the lack of media and judiciary’s support would be a problem for the prime minister eventually, the most immediate concern is the flight of his partymen and allies.

The combined strength of the PTI government and its allies in the national assembly is about 179 whereas the combined opposition has 162 members. The opposition needs to flip a bare minimum of nine members from the treasury benches, and not let any of its own slip, for the no-confidence motion to succeed. By letting its trusted minions fly Khan’s coop, the army has effectively sealed his fate. The opposition, for its part, is confident that it has enlisted at least three times the number of members needed to oust Khan.

The speaker of the national assembly, a staunch Khan loyalist, has to call a session within two weeks from the date the resolution was moved. He also could resort to unconstitutional stalling tactics. Also, a sitting government has tremendous resources at its disposal and could potentially thwart the move, but without the state’s coercive apparatus that the army had put at Khan’s proposal, his prospects are dim. In Pakistan’s modern history, the only two prime ministers who faced a no-confidence motion were Benazir Bhutto in 1989 and Shaukat Aziz in 2006, and both survived the move. Khan might earn yet another dubious distinction by becoming the first prime minister to be ousted thus. And he would wail and flail but is unlikely to muster meaningful support from anywhere to square with the army.

The junta’s calculus seems to be that General Bajwa would dismantle the hybrid regime project which has become increasingly toxic for the army’s prestige. As has always been the case with Pakistan army, it is the image that it is worried about, not the monstrous realities it has sired. General Bajwa, in his extended tenure now, would not get another extension but will almost certainly have an undeclared immunity from prosecution when he steps down. The too-clever-by-half General Faiz has no chance of becoming the COAS.

The institutional thinking appears to be that after the current tumult, reasonably fair elections would be allowed along the lines of the ones held in 2008 and 2013. The army establishment would revert to its guardianship status, which it has afforded itself in the periods before, during and after its various coups d’état since Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s era, to exercise power without overtly toppling or tripping a government. The relatively subtle tutelary role that the army seeks to resume, instead of the brazen everyday meddling of the past few years, reflects only a change of tactics rather than a desire to correct course. The army’s perspective on both domestic and foreign fronts remains unchanged, notwithstanding the cosmetic changes in the offing.

One doesn’t need to look farther than the case of the outspoken Pashtun nationalist parliamentarian Ali Wazir, who has been incarcerated in Sindh province since December 2020 on trumped-up charges of sedition, to see not an iota has changed in the army’s outlook. Wazir, an outspoken critic of the army, was charged with “incendiary speeches against the state institutions” and held without bail for a year. And when the Supreme Court of Pakistan eventually granted him bail, he was held in another sedition case. When Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, whose PPP rules Sindh, pleaded with General Bajwa during an in camera briefing at the National Assembly just a few months back, he was told that Wazir was arrested in some issue related to his transport business but if he apologises to the army, he may be released.

Also read: Why Pakistan’s New National Security Policy Will Not Ensure Human Security for Its People

Similarly, there’s the enforced disappearance of a leading human rights defender Idris Khattak, who was later sentenced to 14 years imprisonment after a secret trial by an army court. According to the International Commission of Jurists, “the alleged conduct for which Idrees Khattak has been convicted dates back to July 2009 – ten years before his enforced disappearance – and relates to his monitoring of violations by the military.” Unfortunately, the opposition parties have remained reticent about issues like these as well as the army’s mollycoddling of the Taliban at home and in Afghanistan. The one-point agenda that the opposition seems to have coalesced around is the economic mismanagement by the Khan government; it has hardly let out a peep about what the army describes as national security issues.

The army remains doggedly averse to cede its monopoly over defining the ‘national interest’ and formulating the national security and foreign policies. And by not challenging the junta over this, the opposition, especially the PML-N, is setting itself up for an eventual failure to bring even a modicum of civilian oversight over the military. The army has used this nebulous national interest mantra to avert any civilian control and deployed it to smear elected leaders as security risk. But in reality, the Pakistan army masquerades its immense corporate greed as altruistic patriotism, anointing itself the “guardian of the ideological frontiers” of Pakistan and labelling anyone who disagrees with it as traitor to the cause.

As the country’s biggest business conglomerate, the military’s appetite to control democracy is a direct function of the junta keeping its corporate interests first and foremost. In his book, The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan, Professor Aqil Shah notes: “As a corporate organization, the military seeks to enhance internal control and limit external interference. However, the Pakistani military’s prerogatives over its internal structure and functions clearly limit the scope for the establishment of civilian supremacy over the armed forces.”

By opting for a negotiated settlement with the opposition, the army seeks to shut the door on the very vocal challenge to its machinations that was launched by Nawaz and thus limit any potential for external interference and checks, if and when a new political dispensation comes to power. In a recent meeting with the former prime minister in London, I found him rather cold to the no-confidence motion, even though it paves the way for his return to Pakistan and his party’s return to power. He seems to understand the limitations of the move in that it may not result in a substantive change in the civil-military imbalance. But he seems to be in a minority in the party that he leads. He does seem very clear that any new dispensation, which in all likelihood would be led by his younger brother, should only be a stopgap arrangement. He seems keen to go to the electorate at the earliest for a fresh mandate.

It doesn’t appear that the elder Sharif is giving up on his initiative to rein in the army but had to make a tactical pause. The brass, on the other hand, clearly has no qualms about putting Khan on the chopping block, to save its own skin. Whether Nawaz would eventually be able to succeed in taming the army colossus remains to be seen, but for now the opposition seems on the verge of squandering a historical opportunity to hold the army brass’ feet to fire. It could not match the narrative coming from its podium with the political struggle needed on the ground to ensure that the process culminates in some manner of civilian preeminence, if not supremacy.

The faux neutrality in which hordes of the so-called electable politicians are prodded to switch sides, cuts both ways. The army is merely taking a step back, not giving up its control of the power levers. It would only be a matter of time before the junta locks horns with the next prime minister.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets at @mazdaki.