Despite his removal from office in April, the pseudo-populist Imran Khan is trying to mount a comeback in Pakistan. Khan’s ouster has generated a crisis for the politically powerful Pakistani army and the vast patronage networks it controls.

Pakistan Army chief general Qamar Javed Bajwa stands before the start of the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2019. (Farooq Naeem / AFP via Getty Images)

Pakistan is mired in a serious political and economic crisis. The change of government in April this year, with the removal of Imran Khan from his role as prime minister, has not improved economic confidence. The country’s situation may be marginally better than that of its near-neighbor Sri Lanka, but not hugely so. In fact, the ruling elites in both states are guilty of similar recklessness and myopia.

Khan’s ouster was the latest episode in a long saga of intervention by the Pakistani military in the country’s politics. What is novel about the current situation is that the military itself appears to be divided in its attitude toward Khan. This is likely to fuel new cycles of instability in Pakistan.

Imran Khan’s Fightback

Since his ouster, supporters of Khan have caused political chaos, which seems to be rattling both the army leadership and the newly installed coalition government. In July, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) movement won a resounding electoral victory in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, where more than half of all Pakistanis live.

This comes on the back of rising inflation, a yawning trade and current account deficit, and the difficulty Pakistan’s new government faced in brokering an International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal, before finally reaching an agreement with the fund in mid-July. The IMF has forced Islamabad to withdraw subsidies and increase oil and energy prices, pushing inflation up even further and adding to the financial discomfort of the country’s people. Khan’s PTI capitalized on popular discontent in the Punjab election.

Pakistan’s politically powerful army seems to be unwilling to tackle Imran Khan in the same manner that it dealt with past leaders who had been removed from power.

Food inflation in Pakistan today is over 15 percent. The current heat of the moment has made people forget that food insecurity had already started to build up during the four years of PTI rule. During this period, the country was consistently importing wheat, sugar, and cotton. This was the result of poor management and increased smuggling rather than a bad harvest.

To make matters worse, a devastating regional heat wave has compounded the long-term problem of power cuts because of Pakistan’s indebtedness to international energy providers. These conditions seem to have eroded the jubilation of Khan’s opponents, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PMLN) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), at replacing him in power. Despite their success in removing Khan through a no-confidence move in Parliament, the new government has not emerged as a winner from the political confrontation.

Khan continues to dominate the public debate with a populist narrative that depicts him as a figure with clean hands who is fighting a corrupt political elite. Reports are gradually appearing in the press that point towards the PTI leader’s own corruption. However, his support base still considers him a better option than the opposition. This is partly because Khan has laced his narrative with the story of an international conspiracy led by the United States to remove his government.

Pakistan’s politically powerful army seems to be unwilling to tackle Khan in the same manner that it dealt with past governments and leaders that had been removed from power. One military regime jailed and later hanged the ousted PPP leader and prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the late 1970s. More recently, the army removed two prominent leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, and sent them into exile.

Dissent in the Ranks

There is no doubt that the army played a major role in Khan’s ouster, even if the opposition parties who have now returned to office claim that the success of the no-confidence motion, later endorsed by Pakistan’s highest court, was their own work. This raises the question: Why is the army’s top brass not dealing with Khan in the traditional fashion by having him imprisoned or exiled?

If the current army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, widely viewed as the most powerful man in the country, has shown signs of weakness in taking on the PTI leader, it is not because his respect for democratic principles is greater than that of his predecessors. Rather, there are divisions within his own fraternity, which is comprised of serving and retired military personnel.

The latter may not be part of everyday decision-making for the armed forces, but they play a critical role in maintaining the ethos and power of the institution. The Pakistani state often uses senior officers, particularly generals, as diplomats or in other official positions.

For the first time, the intricate system of reward and punishment that the Pakistani army command uses to maintain its overall discipline has not functioned effectively.

Military sources with whom I spoke even suggested that there might be a rebellion of some kind against the army chief if there were any adverse action again Khan. A number of senior officers, including one former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), retired lieutenant general Zaheer-ul-Islam, have come out in support of the PTI. This does not mean that there will be a coup initiated by army colonels against the leadership. But this level of internal dissent within the armed forces is already unprecedented.

For the first time, the intricate system of reward and punishment that the army command uses to maintain its overall discipline has not functioned effectively, especially when it comes to retired officers. No previous chief has faced the public abuse directed at Bajwa by his own colleagues. It is also unheard of for the army’s top commander to confront hostile questioning from media personnel known to be under the influence of the ISI or the army’s own media arm, the Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR).

In addition, there is a relentless media campaign that describes Khan’s removal from office as a US conspiracy. Those involved in this campaign gently (or sometimes not so gently) point their fingers at Bajwa and accuse him of complicity. The general appears to be struggling to regain ground by using a stick-and-carrot approach to deal with his critics. This has meant depriving at least five (and possibly more) retired officers of their pensions and other perks and privileges.

But this has not been enough to pressure other retirees into silence. There are also murmurs of intense discontent among junior officers. In the past, their more senior counterparts primarily worried about the grip of religious extremism in this section of the officer corps, but today they are concerned about losing their loyalty. Sources I spoke with claimed that retired military officers in the United States have already gathered sums of $200-300 per head to support those in Pakistan who have been deprived of their pensions.

Preserving the Regime

In a recent interview, Khan claimed that he had never intended to interfere with the selection of the army’s next chief. But the popular view is that his plan was to retain Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed as ISI head before later promoting him as the service chief. Khan did try to interfere with Hameed’s transfer from the ISI to Corps Command Peshawar by the chief of army staff (COAS), an action that he admitted to in another interview.

The Pakistani army does not have a problem with being dragged into political maneuvers: what it objects to is politicians targeting its own institutional autonomy.

The opposition suspected Khan of interfering with the COAS selection process, possibly in order to manipulate the country’s next election. Former prime ministers such as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had also adopted this approach, but the army chiefs who they selected later defied them. For its part, the army does not have a problem with being dragged into political maneuvers: what it objects to is politicians targeting its own institutional autonomy.

Why should this internal divide have arisen over the sacking of Khan, who is certainly not a more popular figure than Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was in his own time? Why are the army’s junior cadres restless about his dismissal when they welcomed the removal of politicians like the PPP’s Yousaf Raza Gillani in 2012 or the PMLN’s Nawaz Sharif in 2017? There seems to be more at stake today than in these earlier cases.

The political crisis generated by Khan’s rise and fall has certainly made General Bajwa into a controversial and unpopular figure. While the army seeks to maintain its professional image and give the impression that it stands firmly by its chief, its top commanders are worried about the ideological sympathy for Khan among their own officers.

The change of government in April does not mean there has been a regime change in Pakistan. The new administration is just as keen to please the military and expand its role in governing the country as its PTI predecessor.

Current prime minister Shehbaz Sharif quickly passed a law authorizing the ISI to carry out security checks on civil servants before they are recruited and promoted, although it later reversed this decision. He has even allowed the army to negotiate with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) group, which is known for generating violence inside Pakistan.

Khan vs. Bajwa

Yet the problem for the army command is this. Over the course of many years, a narrative that depicts Pakistan’s traditional political leaders from the PMLN and the PPP as corrupt, unpatriotic figures has won support from a significant part of the military fraternity as well as young voters and the urban middle class. These elements are now averse to seeing the traditional parties return to power.

The army leadership may dismiss Khan’s suggestion that the United States conspired with his domestic political opponents to overthrow his government. But this conspiracy theory has gained traction in Pakistan, and any discussion of the role Washington has played in removing various governments around the world tends to give encouragement to Khan’s story.

Those who embrace this perspective see the reluctance of Prime Minister Sharif to buy Russian oil at cheaper rates as another example of Pakistan’s subordination to US influence. General Bajwa’s condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and commitment to improving ties with the United States may reflect his pragmatism, but it does not help improve his image with a domestic audience.

General Bajwa looks to be weaker and more compromised by the day, while Imran Khan appears more dangerous and unpredictable.

In this battle of opposing interests being fought out within the army’s upper echelons, Bajwa looks to be weaker and more compromised by the day, while Khan appears more dangerous and unpredictable. On the back of his recent electoral victory in Punjab, the PTI leader has successfully pushed for his ally Pervaiz Elahi to become the province’s chief minister.

Bajwa’s term as army chief expires at the end of November this year. His current difficulties make it less likely that he will be able to secure an extension of his tenure or help one of his favorite generals to replace him. Yet it is still possible that he may succeed in doing so, countering Khan by deploying Pakistan’s higher judiciary, which has been a tool of the army for decades.

The PTI has lately come under scrutiny because of accusations that the party received illegal donations from foreign individuals and businesses. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) produced a detailed report stating that Khan had taken money from questionable sources including Arif Naqvi, head of the Abraaj Group, a private equity firm. The British authorities arrested Naqvi in 2019 on the foot of a US extradition warrant. Naqvi is accused of misusing funds provided by donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and could face a sentence of up to 291 years if found guilty in the United States.

The Army’s Self-image

The officer corps puts forward a narrative to legitimize their economic ventures and conceal their predatory, kleptocratic behavior. Their propaganda machine, the ISPR, has become a major media empire with one of the largest radio networks in the country. It finances the production of films and TV programs, as well as deploying a large squad of social media operators to malign its critics and uphold its reputation. The goal of this publicity is to project an image of the army as the only institution with the will or capacity to protect Pakistan.

The Pakistani army has presented itself as the champion of middle-class values, in opposition to a dynastic political class that stands for feudal values.

ISPR-sponsored films and programs tend to focus on internal enemies, depicting them as coconspirators of the foreign threats to Pakistan. They present the politicians as feudal landowners who are regressive, repulsive, and crass, in contrast with the military, which is modern, urban, patriotic, and sensitive about minorities and women. Works like Alpha Bravo Charlie (1998), Ehd-e-Wafa (“Promise of Loyalty,” 2019), and Sinf-e-Aahan (“Women of Steel,” 2021) depict the army as an agent of transformation that lifts civilians from their rural background and transforms them into members of a modern, urban, English-speaking middle class who are still respectful and egalitarian in their approach.

The ISPR, along with the ISI’s media team, works to silence alternative views and generates propaganda according to which the army must spearhead the social and political engineering of state and society in Pakistan. Sources within the army have told me that the origins of this project date back to the time of former army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who occupied the post between 2007 and 2013. Kayani, who had a reputation as a thinking man, laid the foundations for a sociopolitical transformation that later brought Khan to power.

This publicity is supposed to justify the overextended role that the military believes it must play in order to expand its power. As the American political scientist Stephen P. Cohen once put it, “There are armies that guard their nation’s borders, there are those that are concerned with protecting their own position in society, and there are those that defend a cause or an idea. The Pakistan Army does all three.”

However, in the process of establishing itself as the only worthwhile national institution, the military has also created challenges for itself. It has raised expectations on the part of the middle class and many of its own supporters that it would eliminate politicians considered to be bad from the political process. The army has presented itself as the champion of middle-class values, in opposition to a dynastic political class that stands for feudal values.

Fighting Over the Pie

While dynasticism and patronage are certainly part of Pakistan’s political structure, the military is not a superior alternative. Its generals tend to use institutional power to manipulate national resources so as to lift themselves out of their middle-class background and become part of the elite. They have used anti-corruption rhetoric to justify the removal of several governments, dating back to the 1980s. But the generals themselves, as we have seen, are equally corrupt.

The army uses the proclaimed fight against corruption to delegitimize political actors rather than to combat financial mismanagement.

The army uses the proclaimed fight against corruption to delegitimize political actors rather than to combat financial mismanagement. Its top echelons initially promoted Khan because of their discomfort with Pakistan’s traditional parties. There was a conscious plan to weaken the traditional two-party system after the end of Musharraf’s rule, as one former intelligence chief has acknowledged.

Those who spoke about empowering the middle class and shifting power away from the representatives of dynastic politics used Khan’s personal charisma as a tool to reclaim space from the existing parties. This does not mean that the PTI actually represents middle-class interests; indeed, it is as elite oriented as the other parties. However, the project of vilifying the other political players now appears to have backfired on the current army chief, some of whose own men now view him as a traitor for abandoning the PTI project.

The army has begun to pay a price for its power games, as it has become more acceptable for people from across the party spectrum to accuse its commanders of manipulating the political processes — although the parties are still unwilling to publicize the exploitation of national resources by the generals. Ultimately, this is a story of elite capture in which Pakistan’s civil and military leadership are in partnership with each other.

There may eventually be a real confrontation between them if the size of the financial pie available for plunder shrinks, obliging the two sides to struggle over who gets a greater share of the spoils. However, Pakistan has not reached that point yet, and until it does, the country is likely to lurch from crisis to crisis.

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