On March 13, 1990, Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto landed in PoK and declared a “thousand-year war” against India in support of Kashmiri militants. In May, American spy satellites reportedly photographed Pakistani military vehicles from the top-secret nuclear weapons complex at Kahuta travelling to an Army airbase near the Indian border.
The following month, Benazir, unaware of the developments, went on an official visit as Pak prime minister to Washington. She was in the dark that Pakistan’s nuclear hawks, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Army Chief General Mirza Aslam Beg, were preparing for nuclear war with India. Beg had ordered scientists at Kahuta to ready the nukes, evacuate the complex and send the weapons from the nuclear storage facility in Balochistan to a nearby airfield, where they were loaded on F-16s, ready to launch on command.
It was a tense moment in sub-continental history. The Soviet Union, which had pulled out of Afghanistan, was nearing its expiry date. The ISI and the Pakistan military were diverting battle-hardened mujahideen and other Islamic militants based in the Afghan warlands into Kashmir to aid local seditionists. India had amassed its armies on the Western border, ostensibly for war games. In June 1990, a worried US President George HW Bush sent his emissary Richard Kerry to both Islamabad and New Delhi. According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, the Indian Prime Minister VP Singh did not anticipate a nuclear threat.
But he had warned Pakistan that it could not get away with taking Kashmir without a war. Richard Kerr, the former CIA Deputy Director, is quoted saying, “There is no question in my mind that we were right on the edge.” Robert Gates, the US Deputy National Security Advisor then, believed that both India and Pakistan “were blundering towards a war,” and the US was concerned that “it would go nuclear.” Western intervention diffused the situation, and those in the know heaved a sigh of relief. The incident illustrated for the first time the Pakistan oxymoron in a nutshell—it was willing to destroy itself to save itself.
Since then, Pakistan has been slowly destroying itself. The Imran Khan crisis is the latest in a long line of catastrophes that have blighted the country. The blame for its decay squarely lies on the shoulders of its military, which has fought and lost three wars with India; one of which divided Pakistan forever. Over three generations, Pak officers and soldiers have been indoctrinated with a single purpose: avenge the creation of Bangladesh. The shadowy hand of the military, and its dark offspring, the ISI, can be seen behind Imran’s dilemma.
Early last week, when coalition partners withdrew support for Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government—a first in Pak political history—Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa and spy boss Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum met Khan at his official residence in Islamabad for a special meeting; content unknown. Indian intelligence sources said that both men had reached out to the Opposition to go back on the no-confidence motion, which was refused.
They then asked the PM to give up the crease but were turned down. Later in the week, Bajwa adopted a conciliatory tone on Kashmir that contrasted with Imran’s rhetoric. Moreover, the General’s approval of Pakistan’s long-standing relationship—in the context of India supporting Russia over Ukraine—with the US, which Imran has accused of trying to topple him, is particularly telling.
That was another masterstroke. “Imran Khan has sprung a surprise on everyone. The greatest damage is to the democratic process and political stability of Pakistan. The rift with the Army is very obvious now. They are on completely divergent tracks on what is in the interest of the country. The fallout with the Army, at this stage, one might say, is irreversible,” says Prof Ajay Darshan Behera, Officiating Director, Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
The PM had taken the critical step of calling a National Security Council meeting, which is done only in a dire emergency. But the uniforms were unwilling to issue an anti-US statement. Khan, waving a doctored cable, turned it into a public issue at a rally where he projected himself as the casualty of a conspiracy. But China, which Khan wooed desperately during the February Winter Olympics, has made clear where its sympathies lie. Beijing has demanded the Pak civilian government return an outstanding loan of $55.6 million by 2023.
IMRAN IN DEBT
Pakistan’s worst enemy is its own delusions of wannabe Islamic imperialism and a corrupt ruling clique. The reason why the Opposition and defectors from Khan’s own party are giving for sabotaging his government is economic mismanagement. The economy has been lurching from crisis to crisis, living off IMF loans and ruthlessly taxing the lower and middle classes. Shamefully, its shrinking foreign reserves comprise loans from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and China. Last year, Imran announced a $709 million subsidy programme to combat inflation. Pakistan is broke. Its reliance on exports has crippled jobs at home. Its Ministry of Finance’s Monthly Economic Outlook Report predicts that the Ukraine crisis will paralyse the economy further as global oil and food prices soar.
Though the government projected its annual trade deficit at $28 billion, it has already reached $32 billion and counting in just over eight months in the last fiscal year, and could rise to $50 billion, say experts. Nobody knows where the money will come from.
Pakistan Bureau of Statistics reckoned that the country’s trade deficit is an eye-popping $31.959 billion, having gone up by 82 per cent between July 2021 and February 2022. Former Pakistan Finance Minister Hafeez Pasha told a TV presenter that the country’s present current account deficit was around $20 billion, or 6 per cent of the GDP. Nine-month average inflation is 10.77 per cent. Food prices rose by 34.58 per cent, while utility expenses are 23.63 per cent of the household income.
At a rally in mid-March, Khan had said, “I didn’t join politics to know the prices of potatoes and tomatoes”—either out of pure political naiveté or elitist insensitivity. He had added, “I joined it for the sake of the country’s youth… If we want to become a great nation, we will have to support the truth, and this is what I have been preaching for the last 25 years.” It was just an immature politician trying to raise the debate to a larger plane, which fell flat because the prices of tomatoes are exactly what he is supposed to control. After the Ukraine war drove up global coal prices, Pakistan’s power crisis has heightened—load shedding plunged the country into darkness late last month when the shortfall reached 5000 MW. Some power plants have been closed.
Two nuclear plants are not functioning at full capacity. The country faces a 52 per cent water shortage causing disruptions in essential services such as healthcare. Khan froze petroleum and gas prices, and announced new fuel and energy subsidies. He offered a dodgy tax amnesty scheme that encourages investors to start new industries with black money, whose source doesn’t have to be declared. The shocked IMF has insisted that the sops must stop if Pakistan is to receive its $6 billion bailout package.
In 2018, a campaigning Khan, like all boilerplate politicians, blamed previous governments for the country’s economic ruin and vowed not to borrow from development agencies. The next year, he was forced to change the raga. He begged for IMF money in tranches in exchange for cuts in social and development spending. IMF has suggested tax hikes, which would cripple Pakistan further and destroy many political careers.
Much of the blame for crippling Pakistan’s economy can be laid at the doors of its Army and the ISI. The Pakistani military has diverted billions in developmental aid into its own pockets. A paper by Mumtaz Anwar and Katharina Michaelowa, ‘The Political Economy of US Aid to Pakistan,’ presented to the Hamburg Institute of International Economics, suggests that Western development assistance to Pakistan from 1960 to 2002 (in 2001 prices) was $73.1 billion, from both bilateral and multilateral sources. This does not include military aid.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 increased US monetary assistance to Pakistan. The authors stated that “large and undisclosed amounts of money and arms were channelled (by CIA) to the mujahideen fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan through Pakistan’s military and its clandestine agencies, particularly the ISI.
While this ‘aid’ was not meant directly for Pakistan’s military, there is ample evidence that significant funds meant for the Afghan mujahideen were pocketed by Pakistani officers.” Thereafter, Pakistan hoodwinked the West by spending massive amounts of aid dollars to fund terror ops against India. Azeem Ibrahim, Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, and a Director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy, believes that “US officials have been reported as saying that some of the aid is being diverted to the border with Pakistan’s traditional rival, India.” When it comes to financial sleight of hand, Khan is not behind.
As reported, the all-powerful Saudi prince MBS gifted Khan an ultra-expensive bespoke watch during his official visit to Riyadh. The PM, in order to avoid giving it to the Treasury, asked his cronies to sell it. Of all places, they approached a watch dealer in Dubai, who recognised it and promptly informed the palace. A furious MBS reportedly ordered the watch to be bought and sent back to him. It is no surprise that Riyadh has been chilly towards Islamabad hence.
HOW PAK ARMY STOLE BILLIONS
The US is a known victim of the financial fraud of the Pak establishment at its expense. American foreign policy is based on arm-twisting weaker economies with strategic geopolitical status to do its bidding for money. India would have none of that—as evidenced by its current refusal to vote against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But for the Pakistani elite, the money was manna and terrorism became a money-minting machine.
Notes a Carnegie Policy Outlook report: “While aid in the earlier decades focused on helping the people of Pakistan and in supporting economic growth, aid in the 1980s, in particular, began to strengthen the military and its clandestine institutions. Aid, which was largely productive in the earliest phase, thus gave rise to more damaging consequences in later years... The war aid disbursed to Pakistan’s military, the ISI, and the Afghan mujahideen—although intended to serve America’s purposes more than Pakistan’s—ironically nurtured the very entities that were to cause serious problems three decades later.” The corrupt and wily generals and spy chiefs held the US taxpayer hostage, taking money to fund the War on Terror while arming the very terrorists Pak soldiers were fighting and sending them to Kashmir.
A hearing before the US subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs on June 24, 2008, noted, “First, the grave concerns about the stewardship of nearly $6 billion in taxpayer funds. The GAO’s (Government Accountability Office) in-depth, on-the-ground investigation offers a pretty damning critique. Specifically, it found for a large number of reimbursement claims Defence did not obtain detailed documentation to verify that claimed costs were valid or actually occurred. Defence paid over $2 billion in Pakistani reimbursement claims for military activities covering January 2004 through June 2007 without obtaining sufficient information that would enable a third party to calculate these costs.”
Since 2009, the US government has committed over $5 billion in civilian assistance to Pakistan and over $1 billion in emergency humanitarian response. The New York Times reported, “After the US has spent more than $5 billion in a largely failed effort to bolster the Pakistani military effort against Al Qaeda and the Taliban... the Bush administration and military officials said they believed that much of the American money was not making its way to frontline Pakistani units. Money has been diverted to help finance weapons systems designed to counter India, not Al Qaeda or the Taliban, the officials said, adding that the US has paid tens of millions of dollars in inflated Pakistani reimbursement claims for fuel, and ammunition and other costs.” The Pakistani military has used millions of dollars to fuel its anti-India obsession.
A Belfer Center report mentions that “Pakistan bought much conventional military equipment. Examples include F-16s, aircraft-mounted armaments, anti-ship and antimissile defence systems, and an air defence radar system costing $200 million, despite the fact that the terrorists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have no air attack capability. Over half of the total funds—54.9 percent—were spent on fighter aircraft and weapons, over a quarter—26.62 percent—on support and other aircraft, and 10 percent on advanced weapons systems.” Their only target could be the Indian forces. The report says that the US provided $1.5 million to reimburse Pakistan for damage to Navy vehicles, which had not been used in combat. It also allotted $15 million for the Pakistani army to build bunkers that don’t exist and about $30 million for building roads that were not constructed.
The report continues, “Fifty-five million dollars was provided for helicopter maintenance for the entire national helicopter fleet which was not performed. Pakistan continued to receive around $80 million per month for military operations during ceasefire periods when troops were in their barracks. US officials visiting the FATA found Pakistani Frontier Corps units poorly equipped, one reporting that he saw members of the Corps ‘standing... in the snow in sandals,’ with several wearing World War I-era pith helmets and carrying barely functional Kalashnikov rifles with ‘just 10 rounds of ammunition each’.
At one point, President Pervez Musharraf himself complained that Pakistan’s helicopters needed more US spare parts and support, despite reports from US military officials that the US had provided $8 million worth of Cobra parts over the previous six months.” The dictator was charged with corruption amounting to billions of dollars. The report notes further that “the great majority” of the Coalition Support Funds given by the US to reimburse Pakistan for counterterrorism operations was reportedly diverted to the Ministry of Finance, with only $300 million reaching the Army in the financial year ending 2008. “This is evidence of corruption at the highest level...
For many years, US officials ignored clear evidence that the military was not using US funds to further US foreign policy objectives.” Moreover, Islamabad forbade any American oversight of the aid dollars. “US Embassy staff in Pakistan couldn’t check how the military actually spent the money since the Pakistani army insisted that the FATA—where much of the money was to be spent—were too dangerous to visit. Pakistani Army records on the expenditure were not made available to the Americans.” Still, the greenbacks kept pouring in until the Trump administration put a freeze on aid. The dollars also go to funding terrorism. Between 2002 and 2016, Pakistan had received over $14 billion to combat terrorism in the form of reimbursements for its military spending against terrorists.
The US had given Islamabad a total of $33 billion over the same period. It was also clear that Washington was actively encouraging corruption among the Pak ruling establishment. A Carnegie report noted, “Some cash transfers were also made available to the Pakistani government, but it was not obliged to account for how this type of aid is spent,” and the “US government has traditionally given these funds to the Pakistani government without strings attached.” Ironically, Khan accused the US of plotting his downfall.
In the melee, the generals have managed to stay clear of the crisis in Islamabad, unwilling to get the dirt of economic and political failure on their uniforms. “The Pakistan Army has gotten wiser over the years. It has learned that there are no safe bets. Hence, it will not interfere in the process of politicians from disparate political parties venomously reducing each other. That way GHQ will be assured that the ‘last man standing’, as it were, is invariably more pliable,” says Bharat Karnad, Emeritus Professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. For now, ‘Im the Dim’, as Benazir had named Khan at Oxford, has turned out to be quite bright. He has got the better of the Army this time; the man on the street is blaming the uniforms since they are the ones who made Khan’s political career.
Deep divisions have surfaced in the Pak military, thanks to Khan’s machinations. At the centre of the unfolding drama is the notorious and wily Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, a former ISI chief, Khan’s closest ally and a Corps Commander based in Peshawar. Khan had depended on Hameed to keep his house in order, from organising protests, controlling his legislators and intimidating opponents. According to insiders in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, a deal was struck between Khan and Army Chief Bajwa that Hameed would be made Army Chief once Bajwa retired this November—a breach of protocol since there are other senior generals in waiting.
The reason why Bajwa even agreed to such a succession is shrouded in ISI secrecy. The Army’s highest echelons are livid, but the tentacles of Hameed, having been ISI chief and a senior General for years, run deep in the establishment. “Politicians, especially those sponsored by the Army, cannot spring ‘surprises’ on GHQ, Rawalpindi. ISI with a unit tasked with gathering ‘political intelligence’ ensures that. What was, perhaps, unexpected was Khan’s tactical off-line manoeuvre of handing over charge of the government to a retired Supreme Court judge,” says Karnad.
Bajwa is not interested in a second extension, if Pak sources are to be believed. But history shows that no Pak prime minister, irrespective of their popularity can survive without military support. “Once the elections are called, Bajwa will be in a position many of his predecessors were in to tilt the balance this way or that. What the Pakistan Army leadership with the Imran experience in mind may do is clarify the tripwire actions to mark his turning rogue that their chosen candidate will not take,” feels Karnad.
What is different about Imran? There is no doubt that a powerful section of the military and ISI, directed by the ambitious Hameed, are backing him.
But how will the army deal with the elections that have to be held within three months? “The military would want a government of its own choice. But circumstances may not give it the choices. In the past also the military has stepped back and allowed the electoral process to take its own course. My sense is the military might cut a deal with the PML(N), led by Shehbaz Sharif who has had cordial relations with the military in the past and who will be more acceptable to it among the current political leadership, or just let the politicians come up with an alternative. Not interfering in the electoral process may have some advantages for the military,” explains Behera.
The Army is trying to sort out this internal crisis as it finds that the Taliban is violating the terms of the truce Rawalpindi had brokered. The terrorist government in Kabul has gone back to its medieval ways and is hostile to Pak presence on the Durand Line which Kabul doesn’t recognise. Pakistani soldiers guarding the border are being killed regularly. Escalating terror strikes against India would not be enough to divert attention from the vortex of despair and failure which has trapped Pakistan. Very rarely does a good crisis come, which need not be wasted. Pakistani historian, cultural critic, and columnist Nadeem F Paracha writes, “Mindsets are often weaved from narratives formulated by the state and the nationalist intelligentsias... Nevertheless, sometimes such a mindset, after it trickles down from above, and is then fully absorbed by those below, becomes the domain of the people.
So much so, that even when the state decides to change the narrative to suit its newfound needs, it struggles to make the people shrug off the old mindset. Because after decades of propagating the narrative, the mindset that it produced becomes powerfully ingrained in the DNA of a nation. This is what happened in Pakistan.”
As the muezzins call the faithful to prayer in mosques where terror preachers invoke jihad against India; in a primitive Dera Ismail Khan seminary where a young teacher was killed for blasphemy because her colleague had a dream that the victim desecrated the Koran; in Sindh where a young Hindu teenager was murdered because she resisted conversion and forced marriage, Pakistan’s possible political and economic collapse could provoke ordinary Pakistanis to take a hard look at their rulers and their golden circle. This could be a start to changing their mindset of avenging the victimhood fantasies of twisted history.
Pakistan in crisis
Nine-month average inflation is 10.77%. In November 2021, PM Khan announced a $709-million subsidy programme to combat it.
A staggering $31.959 billion, having gone up by 82% between July 2021 and February 2022, according to Pakistan’s Bureau of Statistics
A 52% shortage causes disruptions in even essential services like healthcare. The Current Account Deficit Could rise to a historic $20 billion or 6% of the GDP.
With over two million people falling below the poverty line, poverty in Pakistan has risen from 4.4% to 5.4% in 2020, estimates by the World Bank
Food prices have gone up by 34.58%, while utility expenses are 23.63% of the household income.
Brush with IMF
Talks with the Fund for a $6 billion bailout package reached a stalemate last month over Khan’s dubious tax amnesty scheme and subsidies on petrol and electricity.
Khan has blamed the US for the current crisis, saying that Washington wanted him removed because of his recent Moscow trip. Following last year’s US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington and Islamabad had started distancing from each other on several issues.
The country plunged into darkness late last month when the electricity shortfall reached 5000 MW. While some power plants have been shut, two nuclear plants are not functioning at full capacity.
No formal diplomatic talks have taken place with India for years due to deep distrust between the neighbours over a range of issues, including Khan’s bitter criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi
The Pak ‘ally’ has demanded the government return an outstanding loan of $55.6 million by 2023
The relationship between the ruling Taliban and Pakistan’s military has soured of late. Pakistan, which claims to have lost several soldiers in attacks close to their mutual border, wants the Taliban to do more to crack down on extremist groups.