The Unseen Hand

(Photo: SNS)

The role of the Pakistani military or the ‘establishment’ in the making or breaking of the civilian governments in Islamabad is the country’s worst kept secret.

Recently deposed Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, once the establishment’s chosen one had got ‘selected’ with a generous nudge from the Rawalpindi GHQ in 2018, and then unceremoniously booted out last year. Imran Khan above all is eminently qualified and experienced to make fun of previous Pakistani Army Chief, General Qamar Bajwa’s laughable claims about being ‘neutral’.

That Khan, the vainglorious Pathan from Mianwali, had started harbouring seriously misplaced notions of his own invincibility ~ even against the shadowy presence of the suspicious Generals in Rawalpindi, was to be his undoing.


The more experienced (and even more wounded) Nawaz Sharif, played better after repeatedly paying the price for crossing the ‘redlines’ drawn by the Pakistani ‘establishment’ and getting thrown out by the Generals in 1993, 1999 and even as late as 2017.

Nawaz Sharif who had once alluded to the unseen hand of the establishment as ‘Khalai Maqklooq’ (aliens) is now decidedly muted and zipped on the establishment as it ironically played a role in ousting his political nemesis, Imran Khan, and paved the way for the anti-Khan coalition of the Pakistan Democratic Movement.

As the tables have providentially and circumstantially turned, it is only the increasingly isolated Khan who is left to fight against the establishment, as all other politicians have reconciled to the inevitable role it will play.

Historically, the choices of the establishment have not been linear, ideologically-consistent, or predictable ~ they have essentially been a function of topical needs. The Generals have selectively thrown their weight behind assorted political parties and sometimes even been ambitious enough to ‘create’ political parties of their own, to do their bidding.

The Pakistani military’s unholy dalliance with unbridled power started with the convoluted military coup of 1958, led by General Muhammad Ayub Khan. Prior to the coup, Ayub had incredulously postured reluctance in assuming the role of Defence Minister to ostensibly “save the armed forces from the interference of the politicians”. He did tellingly not worry about the reverse prospect of the politician fearing interference from the armed forces. Soon the Pakistani Armed Forces did interfere in national politics, and the rest is institutionalised history.

The first toying of electoral wherewithal by the establishment happened in 1964 when Field Marshal Ayub Khan was pitted against Fatima Jinnah, with the support of the Pakistan Muslim League.

It was a formidable challenge to the supremacy of the establishment which left no stone unturned towards invoking the tactics of manipulation, coercion and rigging of the narrative, towards its own ends.

The relatively more secular and progressive institution of the Armed Forces had no qualms in adopting an element of ‘Jihadi’ rhetoric into its institutional bearing, as long as it suited the cause.

Years later, yet another overambitious General was to swerve the arrow towards puritanism by changing the motto of the Pakistani military to Iman, Taqwa, Jihad fi Sabil Allah (“Faith, Piety, Struggle in the way of God”) ~ it was to be a precursor to hidden ambitions that went way beyond the traditional role of the Generals.

General Zia-ul-Haq sent his one-time benefactor Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to the gallows and ruled Pakistan with an iron fist. Zia had made an insincere vow on taking over, “My sole aim is to organize free and fair elections which would be held in October this year. Soon after the polls, power will be transferred to the elected representatives of the people. I give a solemn assurance that I will not deviate from this schedule”. He was removed from power by death in a mysterious air crash, after another 11 years!

The post-Zia era of Generals saw a flurry of them joining political groupings or like General Mirza Ali Beg setting up their own outfits like Awami Qaiyadat Party.

Some tactical political formations like the Islamic Jamhori Ittehad (IJI) were widely believed to be an establishment-supported political alliance against the Benazir-Bhutto led-PPP. While the establishment had successfully supported IJI, it fell out of Nawaz Sharif ’s favour and manipulated his ouster, subsequently.

Even the subsequent Benazir dispensation earned the establishment’s wrath as its notorious agency ISI organised Operation Midnight Jackal to counter the popularity of her party.

In a continuing flip-flop of switching sides, the establishment bumped off the Nawaz Sharif government in a coup led by General Parvez Musharraf.

Even Musharaff partook of partisanship as he openly supported PML-Q in the dodgy 2002 General Elections and formed a pliant and farcical ‘government’ under his own Presidentship. After General Musharraf was removed from power, he launched his own political party, All Pakistan Muslim League.

Even though it was ineffectual as a political force, the much-bandied treason charges could not be actioned against Musharraf as he had represented the establishment once.

Later the establishment was to punt on the creation of the third major party i.e., Imran Khan’s PTI, only to do yet another U-turn to back the forces it had ousted earlier, years earlier.

Today, Imran Khan is the only plausible voice against the establishment. With the ‘9th May’ incident under its belt ~ the establishment is doing what it does best i.e., coerce, intimidate, and crush the opposition voice and grandstanding of PTI, one by one. Now there is an exodus of PTI lawmakers, who are parting ways with Imran on one pretext or the other ~ the unseen hand of the establishment’s pressure is obvious and palpable. Almost on script, each fleeing former-PTI lawmaker is making polite apologies for the ‘9th May’ incident and either joining other formations or setting up rival factions.

The disintegration of the once-formidable PTI is critical in shaping the outcome of the impending elections, which the establishment will ensure ends up providing a dispensation that no longer threatens its legitimacy, claims and over-entitlements. Imran Khan and the PTI (once ‘selected’ by the establishment) are the latest sacrificial lambs in the make-and-break of Pakistani politics, as maneuvered by the self-claimed ‘neutrals’ or more realistically by the extra constitutional arm of the establishment.

For the Generals, it is never about individuals, ideologies, parties, or even popular perceptions ~ but about topical necessities and exigencies that warrant the Russian roulette which politicians play.

The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry