Dangerous Crossroads

The Pak Army’s political war against Imran Khan spells doom for the embattled country’s existence and regional peace

Published: 04th June 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st June 2023 09:19 PM   |  A+A-

Imran Khan arrested on May 9 by Pakistani Rangers

In the 218th episode of Loose Talk, a popular—and often hilarious—show broadcast on Pakistani television some 13 years ago, the programme host, Anwar Maqsood, makes a categorical statement to the other protagonist, hugely popular humourist Moeen Akhtar, that their country is an “azad mulk” (independent country). His eyeballs virtually popping out at this assertion, an incredulous Akhtar, caricaturing a Pakistani journalist, says in chaste Urdu, “Pakistan ek azaad mulk hai? Beautiful bhai, mubarak ho. Yeh toh aap ne meri knowledge mein izaafaa kiya hai. Yeh toh mujhe phailani chahiyye puri duniya mein. Kya bayaan diya hai aapne, bhai wah, wah, wah.”

Before you are able to suppress your laughter, Akhtar pulls out his mobile phone and calls up his friends and associates to proclaim and inform—of course, pejoratively—Pakistan as an independent mumliqat (nation). One doubles over in laughter at the spoof and Akhtar’s burlesque delivery of a thought that is shared by many Pakistanis cutting across class lines.

Had Akhtar been alive—he passed away in 2011—he would surely have reminded his countrymen that the mess that they find themselves in now, amid the political, economic and constitutional crisis and turmoil—the worst in 60 years—is, indeed, nothing short of loss of freedom. “He would have reiterated his ‘azaad mulk’ comment now, even as the political and economic situation continues to undergo swift, minute-to-minute changes and there is complete uncertainty,” says Lahore-based political observer Khalid M Khalid. Indeed, the country stepped into 2023, a few months after Imran Khan was rustled out of power by a so-called no-confidence vote, with multiple crises facing it, and much of it has to do with it’s “muddled” institutional architecture, if it can be called one.

Reeling under worsening economic conditions, which were going down the tubes since last year, the country was plunged into chaos on May 9 when former Prime Minister and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan was arrested from the premises of the Islamabad High Court by armed troops of Rangers, a paramilitary force, on charges of alleged corruption. This caused a maelstrom of protests and violence by his party supporters, who stormed the streets across several cities besides targeting army assets. The judiciary, no stranger to Pakistan’s hostile and embittered politics, but this time acting as a safety valve, stepped in to order his release. Imran’s arrest was a consequence of the open challenge that he had thrown at a section of the powerful army, which was said to have installed him in power in August 2018.

Riots break out after Khan’s arrest

While Imran’s arrest and subsequent release helped his popularity soar, his former sponsors and guarantors in olive green had made up their minds to crack down, with plenty of unstated support from Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and former President Asif Ali Zardari. The ‘establishment’, as Pakistan’s army clique is often referred to, wasted little time to come down on leaders from Imran’s party, other civilians as well as some senior army officers—23 of them—who were alleged to have close links with the ousted PM. To send a clear message, it was declared that the detainees would be tried under the draconian Pakistan Army Act.

The relationship between the army and civilian political class in Pakistan has always been based on the principle of ‘you-scratch-my-back-and-I-will-scratch-yours’, but often punctuated by mutual suspicion and animosity. “Pakistan has many ills, but the most telling is the inability of the civilian-military relationship—whatever the ideology maybe—to get along. For some years now, and certainly since coup d’etat was eschewed as a means to grab power, the army’s fundamental objective has been to ensure peaceful transfer of power. On their part, the civilian political elites have always believed that they have a right to be wrong,” says Lieutenant General (retd) Raj Shukla, a former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Army Training Command, who now serves as a member on the Union Public Service Commission.

While agreeing that the PTI chief still enjoys huge popularity across Pakistan, Lt Gen. Shukla says, “Even as Pakistan has not been able to get over the first hurdle (smoothening of civil-military relations), Imran on his part could not convert his maqbooliyat (acceptance) into qubooliyat (legitimacy).” By 2022, and around the time of his ouster from power, he turned desperate, misled and misadvised, as he was, by a section of the army. These backroom boys egged him on to take on the then Chief of Army Staff, Qamar Javed Bajwa, and his successor General Asim Munir. “Little wonder that many of these advisors, including the then Lahore Corps Commander Lt Gen. Salman Fayyaz Ghani, a known Imran acolyte, were arrested or sacked after the events of May 9,” he adds.

Khalid agrees and says that this group within the army “used Imran”. Since his ouster last year, the former PM threw in all his cards in a bid to push for national election in August—the PTI dissolved the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies in January to force the government’s hand—but polling in these two regions are now likely in October. The Pakistan constitution stipulates that elections should be held for the two provincial assemblies within 90 days of their respective dissolution. For reasons not entirely of his own making, Imran began to get isolated from the army when, alongside his political battles, he—even before his ouster as PM—had alleged an “international conspiracy”, a euphemism for the murky American role in Pakistan, especially in relation to China’s vice-like grip over the country. He remains as vocal on US “interference” today.

Lt Gen. Shukla’s assessment is that since the violence of May 9, the PTI chief has been “definitely pushed to a corner” and that “there is a remote possibility of his returning to power, especially when a Sharif-Zardari partnership has begun to take shape”. For its part, he asserts, “the army has learnt from the past and won’t take over power by force”.

Leading the UK-based Just Peace Initiatives, a non-profit working for peace and justice through “conflict transformation practices” in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Ali Gohar sees “widespread corruption within the ruling establishment and class as the root cause of instability in Pakistan”. Gohar, who lives in Bradford, does not foresee any widespread return to terrorism that once bloodied Pakistani towns and cities, especially when there has been a recent rapprochement in Saudi Arabian and Iranian relations.

Javed Malik, a Lahore-based development specialist, too doesn’t believe that terrorism, or anti-India rhetoric or even a refugee crisis at hand even as Pakistan’s socio-political and political-economic conditions remain uncertain. “I foresee a controlled democracy that will be managed with an iron fist at least for three years. There will be curbs on civil liberties, but that will be done at a manageable scale. Besides, much depends on when the elections will take place and what results they throw up. What we should expect is a lot of managed chaos,” he says.

Like Gohar, Khalid too believes that the existing terror networks are themselves caught in 
a quandary as a schism within the army has surfaced, the economy is in a complete shambles—
Pakistani rupee today equals $0.0035 and a roti or naan costs Rs 50—and too many people within the army and intelligence agencies are preoccupied with “our national troubles”. Khalid characterised the sudden recent few bomb blasts, allegedly set off by suspected Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in a few cities, as more a “siyasati diversionary tactic” than any largescale plan to use armed non-state actors to destablise the country or the region.

India, which for years, bore the brunt of unrestrained use of terror as a state policy by Pakistan, now sits by the wings as its neighbour goes to pieces. “While Pakistan battles itself, what must be worrying for India is the emerging axis between the Taliban, Iran and Turkey and, of course, China. There is no point celebrating a neighbour’s demise, especially when we have got better things to do,” reflects Lt Gen. Shukla, who sees China as a bigger threat for India now.

It is not so much the military aspect of Pakistan’s relations with India as much as its economic woes, coupled with the hopeless condition of the people, the unending politico-military intrigues and political uncertainty that will continue to hobble any move to return to a degree of normalcy. Before the current spate of crisis broke on May 9, Madiha Afzal, a scholar with Brookings Institution, while speaking to Deutsche Welle, predicted that “the military and judicial branches are both completely politicised and polarising. They don’t have the trust of the people, and they can’t pull Pakistan out of the current crisis”.

Khalid says even as the political conditions improve, the October elections “will not happen” and that any move to push Imran into political oblivion may burst into civil upheaval. The view in India, as expressed by National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) member and former Cabinet Secretariat Special Secretary Tilak Devasher is more direct. “The elections will take place once the army, which now has near-complete grip on the domestic situation, finishes off Imran politically, by having him disqualified to contest any polls, and decimates the PTI with one rump moving to some other political formation and the other aligning itself with quite another group,” he says.

The Indian security establishment believes that Gen. Munir is now in control with the corps commanders having fallen in line. The ground situation has improved considerably since May 9 and Prime Minister Sharif has resumed talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On May 29, the IMF took an unusual position with its Mission Chief to Pakistan, Nathan Porter, saying, “We take note of the recent political developments, and while we do not comment on domestic politics, we do hope that a peaceful way forward is found in line with the Constitution and rule of law”.

Also, recently, Sharif is said to have contacted IMF Managing Director Kristalina Geogieva to revive the derailed and stringent $6.5 billion bailout package so that Islamabad is able to avoid default. “But the larger economic issues, especially on trade with India and other countries, will take a backseat for now. Pakistan needs to fix its political house first,” Devasher says.

While the Pakistani Army top brass works to take the sting out of the ousted PM and the PTI—and that may not augur well for the democracy-on-crutches situation in the country—piecemeal solutions for problems that are rooted deep in its poorly developed institutions may only prove to be disastrous for Pakistan. 

A fractured polity and political system can see itself back to some degree of normalcy when all the political parties and formations, including other stakeholders, together review the sorry state of affairs and hold dialogues over an extended period of time, besides pushing back the military’s influence. Until that happens, Pakistan will remain a fragile, if not a failed, and a perilous state.


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