Pakistan’s Military Is Weakening Politically – by Kamran Bokhari for Geopolitical Futures – 14.11.22
Imran Khan’s attacks resonate inside the army and out.
When a military-dominant government is on the defensive from a civilian political upswing, it’s usually a sign of democratic progress. And yet that’s not the case with Pakistan. Political and economic instability there is normal, and until fairly recently the military had been able to manage the turmoil, much of which is caused by its own political interventions. But now that this highly populous, nuclear-armed country is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, it is reaching an inflection point that will have serious implications for its own security, as well as that of the region.
Scathing and Blunt
After nearly seven decades as the country’s most powerful political institution, the army is as internally divided as it’s ever been. Perhaps more important, though, is the offensive launched against it by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party and its leader, former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Khan survived an attempt on his life during an anti-government march earlier this month, and he has directed his anger at the military’s leadership, going so far as to say that two very senior officials from the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Maj. Gen. Faisal Naseer and Brig. Faheem Raza, along with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, orchestrated the attack.
For months, Khan has been targeting army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is at the center of a conspiracy theory that goes something like this: The United States collaborated with Bajwa, leading to Khan’s ouster via a no-confidence vote in parliament. (Khan accused U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu by name – a move that helped him energize his base and tap into broader anti-American sentiment.)
Civilians have criticized the military before, of course, but never so scathingly or bluntly. There’s an open debate over how Khan has been able to do so, but at least part of the answer lies in the nature of the PTI itself, and how Khan was able to leverage it into gaining broader influence in the military establishment.
The PTI was a social movement before it was an official political party, and it was groomed to be a political party by the army – a rather common practice in Pakistani politics that gives the military a sort of proxy control over its preferred politicians. However, the relationship between the army and PTI was unusual, more mutually beneficial and less traditionally patron-proxy.
The PTI needed the military to gain and maintain power, and Khan played his part in assuming leadership of military narratives, giving a charismatic, civilian face to an otherwise military platform. This gave Khan broad and deep appeal within the military machine.
The two remained close for some time after the PTI came to power. But by 2020, the army had come to realize how dangerous a populist agenda, headed by a maverick, could be to its interests. Take economic mismanagement as an example. Pakistan’s economy was deteriorating, which would eventually culminate in a major spike in inflation, but it was made worse by Khan’s appointment of three different finance ministers in as many years.
Khan faced growing public criticism, of course, but the military was also being publicly blamed because it had enabled his rise to power. By early 2021, the Khan administration had also upset relations with three of Pakistan’s closest allies – the United States, Saudi Arabia and China – and was undermining the army’s efforts to reduce tensions with India.
Once a political asset for the military establishment, the PTI was becoming a major liability. Even so, many army leaders believed Khan, a former cricketer with no prior political experience, needed a little more time to acclimate to the game and were thus willing to protect him politically. But even that proved to be unsustainable, thanks to an embarrassing disagreement over military appointments.
Bajwa wanted Khan to appoint a new intelligence chief so he could reassign Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, the head of the ISI at the time and a close ally of Khan’s, as the commander of Corps XI, headquartered near the border with Afghanistan. Khan refused, leading to a very public standoff between the head of the army and the head of the government. Khan eventually relented in October 2021, but not before seriously damaging his relationship with Bajwa and his core group of top generals.
The relationship now irreparable, military leaders decided they could no longer support Khan. They let the opposition know that if it can muster the numbers in parliament to oust him, then the general staff would not stand in their way. And so Khan’s government fell in April, marking the end of the military’s fifth attempt to shape the country’s political system since the first coup in 1958.
Khan and his PTI represented the most significant attempt yet by the military to create a political proxy. The army-intelligence complex expended at least a dozen years trying to cultivate Khan’s political movement as a viable alternative to the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan People’s Party, the two dominant civilian political forces in Pakistani politics. The military probably figured that distancing itself from Khan’s movement would be a low-cost move; the economy was in tatters and the PTI would have a hard time surviving without its ties to the military.
They figured wrong. Shortly thereafter, Khan became more popular than ever before. His political machine was able to popularize the conspiracy theory of his ouster, so while the military was engaged in damage control with the U.S., Khan was reaping the benefits of anti-American sentiment. Meanwhile, the new government’s loan with the International Monetary Fund imposed even more pain on the public, adding even more energy to Khan’s movement.
Economic duress has gone a long way in allowing Khan to continue his onslaught against the top brass. But none of this would be possible without significant support from within the officer corps. Put simply, Khan is very popular among military households, who are still mad about his ouster. Clearly, Bajwa and his generals didn’t prepare their own constituency for the breakup.
They failed to realize Khan had gained genuine support in their traditional base. This became obvious when the army chief within days of Khan’s ouster had to address gatherings of top serving commanders and ex-servicemen in order to explain the decision to abandon the proxy that the army had painstakingly built up and the alignment with the old political lot whom the military had long been denouncing as corrupt.
The military has been on the defensive ever since. Bajwa was able to convince a majority of his top commanders that the move was necessary, but he couldn’t convince everyone, and the military’s broader ecosystem remains pro-Khan. This is vital to Khan’s political strategy. His entire campaign has been geared toward forcing early elections – which he would likely win – and then appointing his preferred army chief (probably Faiz), who would return to the status quo. Key to this is driving a wedge between the top military brass, particularly as Bajwa is due to stand down later this month to make way for a new chief.
Khan’s efforts to pressure the generals into ushering in new elections have not worked. The majority of the top commanders aligned with Bajwa, though Khan’s supporters continue to operate behind the scenes, providing him with intelligence and advice for keeping up the pressure. This support from the ranks, in turn, has emboldened Khan and his supporters who continue to attack the army. The mysterious killing of a prominent pro-Khan journalist in Kenya, whose death Khan blames on the ISI, has only added more ammunition to Khan’s attacks, as has the assassination attempt on Khan himself.
The crisis reached critical levels, which would explain why ISI chief Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum defended his directorate and the broader armed forces against Khan’s attacks at an unprecedented press conference on Oct. 27. Anjum told reporters that Khan was attacking the army’s leadership because it refused to engage in unconstitutional behavior. He went on to accuse Khan of bribing the army chief, offering to have him continue in his role indefinitely in exchange for continued support.
Anjum and a military spokesperson both emphasized that the army leadership collectively decided that it would not interfere in the political process. The army that had imposed four long periods of military rule and continued to wield power behind the scenes during civilian rule is clearly losing its grip on the state.
Khan understands that he will unlikely be able to interfere in the army’s leadership transition. But if he sustains enough pressure to force early elections, he might be able to exploit the transition to his benefit, especially before a new army chief has a chance to settle into his role.
Either way, this extraordinary crisis is unlikely to end anytime soon. Given his popularity, Khan will continue to try to subordinate the military to his goal of creating a single-party state. Meanwhile, the army’s grip over the state will continue to weaken and civil-military relations will remain in flux for the foreseeable future – both of which threaten to destabilize the country and thus the broader region.
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Kamran Bokhari, PhD is the Director of Analytical Development at the New Lines Institute for Strategy & Policy in Washington, DC. Dr. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He has served as the Coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @KamranBokhari
Imran Khan - Credit Wikipedia