Disclosures that Pakistan’s Army and all-powerful Inter Services Intelligence met leaders of the country’s opposition parties last week to ask that the military not be dragged into political affairs underscores the role of the country’s deep state and the extent to which it can go to control the narrative about its activities.
The closed-doors meeting was reportedly held on 16 September and was attended by about 15 opposition figures including Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shah-baz Sharif, Pakistan Peoples’ Party chairman Bil-a-wal Bhutto-Zardari and Jamaat-i-Islami emir Sirajul, besides a few government ministers.
The ground rule for the meeting was that its contents would not be publicly discussed, and it was clearly aimed at ensuring that an opposition multi-party conference to be held four days later did not focus attention on the role of the Army and the ISI in manipulating the government of Imran Khan.
The other objective, as put out by a government minister, was to discuss constitutional changes in the status of Gilgit-Baltisan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. In the event, the opposition parties were relatively muted in their criticism although a 26-point declaration issued at the conclusion of the meeting asked for an end to the “establishment’s interference in politics” and said that there should be “no role of Armed forces and intelligence agencies in future elections.”
Only exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was strident in his criticism saying there was a “state above the state” in the country, hardly a revelation in Pakistan or elsewhere but important nonetheless in the context. He lashed out at the Army and the ISI saying that the Opposition’s struggle was not against PM Imran Khan but those who installed him and “who manipulated elections to bring an incapable man like him into power and thus destroyed the country.”
In a speech delivered via video link from London, Mr Sharif said if change did not happen, it would cause irreparable loss. Thus, he argued, it was essential that the armed forces stay away from the government. Pakistan’s opposition leaders have expressed concern at the manner they have been embroiled in corruption cases by the National Accountability Bureau and believe that the deep state is responsible for their discomfiture.
The Sharif family has been a primary target, but others too have faced action. While it is too early to say whether the marathon opposition meeting will lead to concerted, or even decisive action, against the government of the day, or even serve to rein it in, it is unlikely to bring out systemic changes that would reduce the role of the Army and the ISI. For, as ought to be evident to Pakistanis and Pakistan-watchers, the parties now in opposition and so concerned about interference by the deep state were themselves in power not so long ago and could do precious little about the imposition.