Pakistan never ceases to draw attention, even when there are serious geopolitical and geostrategic issues that beset the world. The last days of the Imran Khan government provided a political drama almost as interesting as the one that was played out in Washington during the transition between the US administrations in January 2021. Imran had been in office for over 40 months as prime minister in Pakistan. However, he lost the favour of the kingmakers, the Pakistan Army, who managed to rustle up opposition unity to bring a motion of no-confidence against him in the National Assembly.
The entire drama was played out in the political environment of Pakistan for over 10 days in which Imran tried his best to avoid a vote, quoting among other things a conspiracy against the country by an external hand with the finger pointing at the US. Eventually he was voted out, even as a last-ditch attempt to divide the Army failed. So where does that leave Islamabad as far as its external and internal challenges are concerned, especially in a world where the geopolitical order is witnessing rapid change and Pakistan's economy is near collapse, a virtual replay of Sri Lanka?
If internal order is expected in Pakistan as a result of Imran's departure, we have to think many times over. There is speculation that the Pakistan Army acted against the run of play, that Imran was actually extremely popular with the public. His defiance of the Army is perceived by some to have added to his popularity. The truth is not important here; it is perception that rules.
With general elections due in about 18 months, Imran's efforts to play down the other mainstream parties are going to double. He is out of favour with the Pakistan Army and will attempt to create as much embarrassment as he can for the establishment based upon perception of his own popularity. He is the originator of the famous bandhs that often paralyse the national capital and is likely to create challenges involving internal turbulence for the new PM. If the new government was a monolith rather than a coalition, it would have had the capability to deal with this strongly.
The degree of cooperation and coordination of a coalition government is contingent upon considerable give and take. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is the junior partner of the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) but as election time approaches, its wings too will soar. Political contestation of the Pakistan variety isn't very conducive to meeting the challenges of a failing economy. The Pakistani Rupee is likely to fall to PKR 200 to a US $ in the next couple of weeks unless some tough decisions are taken to infuse political and thereby economic confidence in the country's ability to self-administer.
On the face of it, the Pakistan Army has taken a laissez-faire attitude right through the political turbulence of the last few days. That is not really true. In fact, the trigger for the campaign for Imran's ouster came through the context of the change of the DG ISI. Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, the former incumbent in that appointment, was posted to command Pakistan Army 11 Corps in Peshawar.
Gen Hameed had ambitions probably far beyond his seniority level and was reluctant to be relieved from the all-powerful appointment that was keeping him close to the PM. It is not yet confirmed what role he really played in giving Imran the confidence to take on General Qamar Bajwa, the longstanding Army chief who is reportedly seeking a second extension in October 2022. Yet, some factionalism appears to have entered into the otherwise disciplined and tradition-bound Pakistan Army.
If this be so, General Bajwa's ability to build the required pressure on the new PM may be questionable unless some kind of quid pro quo is arranged in terms of support for Shehbaz Sharif in the next election. But with factionalism rife and many Pakistani Generals seething at being deprived of the opportunity to be considered for four-star rank, General Bajwa may not be able to play 'extension politics' this time.
He is likely to be one of the biggest losers of this entire game and will probably have to shoulder the blame for allowing the Imran shenanigans to play out without any proactive action to curb him. While Bajwa's stand will be to project that he was allowing democracy to have its way, he could have shown the Pakistan Army to be in greater control - that is more for the Army's internal image.
Among Imran's possible ploys to remain the spoiler-in-chief will be the possibility of enhancing acrimony against India and then acting as the great nationalist leader who could recover the situation to Pakistan's advantage. With him being in cahoots with several radical organisations and even elements within the Army, sponsoring an action in J&K could always be possible. Pakistan's internal politics impacting the proxy war in J&K in different ways has always existed.
In terms of foreign policy, Shehbaz Sharif, backed by Bajwa, will go the extra mile to recover the relationship with the US that Imran had upset at a sensitive time. Islamabad needs US support to recover economically, whatever be the status of Sino-Pak ties. The fledgling Pakistan-Russia relationship, which was showing signs of warming after the US pulled out from Afghanistan, is going to be firmly placed on the back burner.
Ironically, US-Pakistan relations could be on the mend just when some chinks in the America-India relationship seem to be appearing. It may yet be too early to read more into this because the US-India strategic partnership is based upon long-term and deep interests, and appears strong enough to withstand such aberrations.
With the US torn between focusing on Europe or the Indo Pacific, it is definitely not going to be appreciative of any Pakistani efforts to resist dismantling of terror infrastructure and financial networks. The sentencing of Hafiz Saeed, the Jamat ud Dawa chief, to 31 years in prison by a lower court is a signal that Pakistan is bending over backwards to accommodate the US to escape any further strictures by the FATF. General Bajwa probably enjoys American backing since the Western nation is reportedly against any empowerment of Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, whose very publicised visit to meet the Taliban leadership soon after US withdrawal did not meet its approval.
There could always be the possibility of advancement of the general elections should the coalition partners feel confident of being able to win at the hustings. They would not wish to add anti-incumbency baggage by extending the government right till the end of the term.
(The writer is former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps and is now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)