Pakistan More Fragile than Ever, Army’s Image Diminished

The “beginning of the end” for Pakistan actually commenced at the moment of the country’s birth. Since then, its trajectory has largely been downhill.

Published: 04th June 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st June 2023 09:30 PM   |  A+A-

Awave of schadenfreude swept across the Indian media, spilling over into the chatterati, as mobs rampaged across Pakistan, attacking the army’s GHQ, the Corps Commander’s residence in Lahore and an air force base at Mianwali (where a dummy fighter jet at the entrance was set afire), among other widespread disorders. This was surely the beginning of the end for Pakistan. Imran Khan, the man in the eye of the storm, warned, “Pakistan is heading for imminent disaster” and, if the country’s leadership failed to “act sensibly, the country may face an East Pakistan-like situation”.

The “beginning of the end” for Pakistan actually commenced at the moment of the country’s birth. Since then, its trajectory has largely been downhill. The oft-predicted end, however, is nowhere in sight, and remains unlikely in the foreseeable future. One of the important lessons of contemporary history is that established states can sink very, very low, without reaching the point of disintegration. 

What is clear, however, is that the three days of chaos, following Imran Khan’s arrest on May 9 and his release by the Supreme Court on May 11, are a watershed in Pakistan’s downward journey. Though every politician has chafed under the heavy hand of a military that has been the ultimate arbiter of power in the country since Independence, and successive prime ministers have squirmed and protested, none has dared to openly challenge the hegemony of the army, as has Khan.

‘Inconvenient’ prime ministers have been summarily dismissed; at least one, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, has been hanged; others have been imprisoned and/or exiled; and a former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, assassinated after her security was maliciously diluted despite clear warnings of imminent threat, a case yet to be investigated. Those who persist in creating any measure of nuisance for the military establishment are otherwise summarily dealt with, and there have been no lasting consequences for the army leadership. For nearly half of its existence, Pakistan has been ruled by a military dictator. 

But the nature and sheer endurance of Khan’s defiance is unprecedented, as are his direct attacks on the Army Chief, General Asif Munir, as well as his predecessor, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Khan has also openly accused the army of plotting the ouster of his government, as well as the failed assassination attempt on him in November 2022. The army’s efforts to contain Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) through political proxies has, for the moment, failed in the face of a judicial push-back from the Supreme Court. 

Crucially, through Pakistan’s history, the army leadership stood as an unshakeable phalanx against all other forces in the country—in particular against political parties. Reports from Pakistan, however, indicate that this time around, there is significant division within the army leadership, fractures that have extended deep into the families. 

This is a process of slow attrition, and none of its outcomes is likely to be pretty. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to believe that an effective challenge to the army’s power exists at present. Sweeping arrests of the PTI leadership and their entanglement in a slew of cases relating to the violence has already dampened the enthusiasm for disruption. A number of prominent PTI leaders have—in the way of rats in a sinking ship—resigned from the party. Imran Khan has also begun to temper his language, but he has not given up on his core demand—early elections that would likely bring him back to power. The present government has refused to talk to Khan, so an impasse continues to exist—as does the country’s crippling economic crisis, compounded by a rising wave of terrorism, feeding public discontent.

Crucially, the Army’s legitimacy—though not its capacity for coercive action—appears to have ebbed. Imran Khan’s popularity remains undiminished. Each option that now confront the army is fraught with consequences that can only further undermine its hitherto iron grip on the imagination of the masses. In efforts to claw its way back into popular esteem, the army has launched a campaign to project its martyrs, and has enlisted the support of religious parties—many of which have been at loggerheads with the military establishment in the past a move that is likely to feed another stream of destabilisation. 

There is little doubt that the country’s current contretemps will eventually be settled by brute force. Khan will either be brought to heel, or will be dealt with ‘otherwise’. The army has a long history of brutal domestic repression, and there is little evidence that it has lost its skills or appetite. But the state in Pakistan, today, is far more fragile than it has been before, the Army’s image far more diminished. The gradual, abrasive decline of the army and the state in Pakistan continues.

Ajai Sahni

Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, South Asia Terrorism Portal

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