Pakistan is in grave turmoil. There is a mounting confrontation between the popular public leader Imran Khan and the all-powerful army. Since its inception, Pakistan had been under military rule for nearly three decades. Even when the civilian authorities have exercised power, it is the army that has called the shots.
Frederick the Great’s Prussia was called “not a state with an army but an army with a state.” This perhaps is also the complex reality with Pakistan Imran Khan was propped up by the army as it wanted a weak and unstable civilian government to be in power so that it could exercise its authority from behind. The army wanted a change of face and Imran was the perfect change agent.
Now having been ejected from office in democratic proceedings which his supporters call illegitimate, Imran has turned to a leading critic of the army. He is roundly accusing the army of constantly interfering and not allowing him to function freely, and of crippling all democratic institutions.
Live streams of his speeches were so popular that the Government had to ban them on dubious grounds. During his protest march, Imran received bullet injuries which his supporters described as an assassination attempt. Imran has alleged that Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, Home Minister Rana Sanaullah, and a senior military officer were behind this assassination attempt. This direct accusation against a senior army officer has very much annoyed the army.
The party of Imran Khan (PTI) has demanded that all these three persons should be removed from office and said there would be countrywide protests if these demands are not complied with. Imran has even spoken of the ominous possibility of civil war.
But the bitter reality in Pakistan is that the army is all-powerful and that civilian leaders, even when there is no army rule, must work under its shadow. From behind the scenes, the army continually pulls the strings. The army is well-heeled and well-entrenched.
Ayesha Siddiqa in her book has described the vast powers and financial holdings of the army and points out how it will be difficult to sideline or marginalize the army even under full civilian rule. The army has a decisive say in the foreign policy and national strategic issues and nuclear plans and programmes of the country.
Benazir Bhutto, when she was the Prime Minister, frankly, conceded that she remained in the dark about the nuclear programmes of the country. Under General Parvez Musharaff, the tentacles of the army further spread into the economy, and army officers were appointed in many important civilian posts. Prime Ministers Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and later Nawaz Sharif tried to interfere in the exclusive domain of the army and exercise some control Both had to pay a heavy price. One was hanged and the other was sent to prison.
The army avers that it does not dabble in politics but what really prevails in Pakistan is a kind of a hybrid democracy where there is a blending of civilian electoral politics with army rule. There is no gainsaying the fact that Imran has shown courage and defiance in openly challenging the generals.
In Pakistan, no one so far has dared to do so in this manner. The army is quite on the back foot, criticism, and veiled digs at generals by Imran are lapped up by the huge crowds comprising vast numbers of youths thronging his meetings. This is happening even in the Punjab which is the stronghold of Imran’s political rival Nawaz Sharif and from where most of the officers and men of the army are drawn. This narrative is scaring the army as it is very keen to preserve popular respect as the stabilizer and upholder of the integrity of Pakistan.
In an unprecedented press conference on October 27, the DG ISI, General Naseem Anjum berated Imran for creating a volatile law and order situation by his long march and held out the threat that the army would stand by the government in maintaining peace and order and acting against troublemakers. He also accused Imran of holding secret parleys with the army for overthrowing the present Shahbaz Sharif government. Many of Imran’s past policies and postures have been controversial. He supported Musharraf’s coup in 1999 and opposed operations against the Taliban in the Swat valley.
Political commentator Najam Sethi has said, “A lot of Imran Khan’s story is about backtracking on a lot of things he said earlier which is why he does not inspire confidence.” The situation has now changed, and his bandwagon is rolling. Despite his bluff and bluster, Imran Khan also does not want a no-holds-barred antagonism with the army He knows too well the insurmountable problems of ruling ungovernable Pakistan without the army’s support.
Army with its nexus with the mullahs and links with the terrorists can make it impossible for a civilian government to function at all. Hence it is reported that Imran is holding backchannel parleys with the army. He says that he does not want merely to criticise the army and its soldiers. His criticisms are constructive, and he stands by the army for Pakistan’s defence and integrity. DG ISI has accused Imran of making a “lucrative offer” of an indefinite extension to General Bajwa if the army helps him to get back to power.
He hopes that he will be able to persuade and pressurize the army to dump the present wobbly government and go for an early election He wants to profit from chaos. He also wants to have some say in the selection of the new army chief after General Bajwa steps down this month. He has lambasted the present Prime Minister for consulting Nawaz Sharif whom he calls a “thief” for the selection of the army chief.
The Army though is unlikely to deal with Imran. The future scenario thus remains uncertain and perilous. It is very unfortunate that Pakistan is being convulsed by serious internal discord at a time when it is pummelled by devastating floods and high inflation. Imran’s long march will not perhaps herald a new dawn but plunge Pakistan into greater chaos. There are whispers in the air of a split in the army and some officers being supportive of Imran Khan. Some superseded generals may disfavour General Bajwa but overall, the army remains unified and cohesive and knows well that discord and disunity within its top echelons will only affect its special status and privileged position in Pakistan.