Rawalpindi gains the upper hand in troubled Pakistan

The brewing civil unrest will further exacerbate the troubles confronting Pakistan

Published - June 21, 2023 12:08 am IST

Supporters of Pakistan’s ruling alliance gather outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad to protest against the judiciary’s alleged facilitation to former Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan

Supporters of Pakistan’s ruling alliance gather outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad to protest against the judiciary’s alleged facilitation to former Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan | Photo Credit: AFP

After the violent events of May 9 in Pakistan following former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arrest in an alleged corruption case, the country’s powerful military establishment has decided to decimate Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). Negotiations are now off the table as the Army leadership swiftly dismantles the ‘Imran Khan Project’, which it had initiated with fanfare some years ago. Following his unceremonious removal last year, Mr. Khan and his PTI had targeted the military in an unprecedented manner. Mr. Khan’s arrest on May 9 was possibly linked to him publicly accusing and naming a serving Inter-Services Intelligence officer, Major General Faisal Naseer, for alleged assassination attempts on Mr. Khan’s life.

Never before has a civilian leader, especially an Opposition leader, in Pakistan’s 75-year history, challenged the Army in the manner that Mr. Khan has. The Pakistani military and its intelligence agencies are now avenging a year of public humiliation heaped on them by Mr. Khan and his party leaders.

This episode has provided the military establishment further opportunity to tighten its grip over democratic institutions in Pakistan, win back public trust – rather forcefully — and create a new political arrangement or “hybrid” regime. More importantly, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Syed Asim Munir, sees this as an opportunity to move away from his predecessor’s shadow (General Qamar Javed Bajwa) and shape his own legacy. Before his retirement, Gen. Bajwa, in a speech last November, had claimed that the Army’s role in politics was “unconstitutional” and that it had decided to remain “apolitical”. Gen. Munir has also made similar assertions, but the brutal clampdown on the PTI is belying those claims.

During the May 9 protests, Mr. Khan’s supporters had breached the Army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s power centre. For the very first time in Pakistan’s existence, civilians conducted a “symbolic coup” against the powerful military establishment, in a way telling them to stay in their barracks.

Expectedly, this muscle-flexing has backfired. PTI cadres allegedly involved in the May 9 violence will face trials in military courts under the Army Act and Official Secrets Act. Notably, this action of the Army has received support from the current Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government. The Army is also running a well-crafted propaganda to portray itself as a “victim” of PTI-led “terrorism”.

The Army has not stopped. Nearly the entire senior leadership of the PTI has “officially” left the party after caving in to pressure from the military establishment and to avoid imprisonment. The PTI is now struggling to survive, and Mr. Khan is fast losing his support base and the motivation to continue his fight for “Haqeeqi Azadi”, or ‘true independence’.

Political dynamics

However, Mr. Khan’s political woes go beyond this. The violence of May 9 has also resulted in the indefinite postponement of provincial elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Mr. Khan and the PTI had long demanded elections in these provinces. Additionally, the likelihood of the PDM government holding country-wide general elections later this year has also diminished significantly. These dynamics will further exacerbate political instability and boost the military’s role in politics.

Under these circumstances, the military establishment may no longer require a coup d’état to exert control in the country. Traditionally, weak coalition governments and “hybrid” political setups such as Mr. Khan’s PTI government, have provided more room for the Army to assert its control. In fact, many analysts have labelled the present political arrangement in Pakistan as a “quasi-military dictatorship.”

The military is using Mr. Khan and PTI as an example to warn other political parties against crossing the red line. Moreover, it is believed that the ‘Imran Khan project’ posed significant threats to unity within the military, as there have been reports of internal divisions within the Army over this issue.

Consequently, the crackdown on PTI supporters and the proposed utilisation of military courts are also being carried out to target alleged dissenters within the security establishment. Reportedly, the Pakistan Army is set to take serious actions against its own officers who did not show expected resistance against pro-Khan protestors. For example, the former Lahore Corps Commander, Lt. General Salman Fayyaz Ghani, is under investigation for allegedly allowing PTI supporters to enter his house and carry out acts of vandalism on May 9. Media reports claim that Lt.Gen. Ghani’s wife is closely related to the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Umar Ata Bandial. The PDM government has targeted Justice Bandial for allegedly favouring Mr. Khan, demanding his resignation for causing “anarchy” and a “crisis”. It is worth noting that Mr. Khan’s support within the country’s judiciary has caused tensions between the judiciary and the military establishment.

This brewing civil unrest will further exacerbate the troubles facing Pakistan, which is already grappling with a severe economic crisis and numerous security challenges. The May 9 protests have given the Army ample justification to end Mr. Khan’s political career and to fragment the PTI. With the military establishment emerging stronger and civilian institutions getting weaker, the people of Pakistan will bear the brunt, facing food shortages, power outages and limited fuel supplies alongside skyrocketing inflation. The prospect of political and economic stability in Pakistan remains a distant dream.

Sameer Patil is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Sarral Sharma is a PhD Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Both writers have previously served in the National Security Council Secretariat. The views expressed are personal

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