RIGHT ANGLE – Fall and Fall of Pakistan
Pakistan seems to be on the edge. The arrest of the former Prime Minister and the legendary cricketer turned politician Imran Khan has resulted in a civilian war-like situation in the country. It is said that thousands and thousands of Pakistanis would like to leave the country, at least for some time, if they have money to buy air tickets. They are increasingly feeling insecure economically, politically and even security-wise.
The official figures on Pakistan’s political and economic health are quite alarming. Almost 800,000 people migrated from Pakistan in 2022 in search of better economic prospects abroad. With rocketing inflation and the rupee devaluing by 30% during 2022, millions of urban middle-class people have been pushed to the brink of poverty. Cataclysmic floods in recent months have further ravaged the rural poor.
Annual inflation hit a record rate of 36.4% in April. Food-price inflation is running at 48.1%. GDP growth is projected to be a dismal 0.5% this year. The country is supposed to repay an estimated $77.5bn in loan repayments by June 2026, but it does not have foreign exchange for one month’s imports. There is no sign that the International Monetary Fund will soon agree to resume a $6.5bn lending programme. That means that there is every possibility of Pakistan being declared a defaulter. Even its traditional friends like China and Saudi Arabia are hesitating to rescue the country’s economic ways unless the government restores some sort of political and economic stability.
Against this background, Imran Khan’s arrest could not have come at a worse time. In this seemingly civil war that Pakistan is afflicted with today, on the one hand, there is the increasingly unpopular running coalition led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and a defiant Imran, who is rapidly drawing support from all parts of the country, on the other. The Sharif government seems to have the support of the country’s most powerful institution, the Pakistani Army. And Khan is believed to have gained of late the sympathy of the Judiciary, particularly the Apex Court.
And, what is interesting here is that Imran Khan and his myriad supporters are targeting the Army, rather than Sharif, to be their principal target. In fact, Khan has alleged that the Army has tried to kill him at least twice over the last six months. And he has gone to the every possible extent of foul-mouthing the Army Chief General Asim Munir and his predecessor General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
In fact, when he was the Prime Minister, Khan never liked General Munir, then the chief of the dreaded ISI. He wanted another General in his place, but the then Army Chief Bajwa supported Munir. Subsequently, Khan was voted out ( April, 2022 ) in the national Assembly and it was Sharif, the new Prime Minister, appointed Munir as the Army Chief, of course as per the advice of General Bajwa.
Ironically, when Imran Khan was able to become the Prime Minister in August 2018 despite his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) not gaining the majority in the national elections, it was due to the active support from behind by none other than General Bajwa.
But then Pakistan has a history of witnessing the Generals turning against the Prime Ministers who appoint them. That explains why none of Pakistan’s 22 Prime Ministers has completed a full term. Whether General Munir will stand behind Prime Minister Sharif this time remains to be seen, though it is a fact that the latter’s elder brother Nawaz Sharif, who was the Prime Minister thrice, was dethroned by a military coup by General Pervez Musharaf, whom he had appointed the Army Chief in 1998.
In 2016 Nawaz had also appointed General Bajwa, but it is a common belief that it was none other than the latter who created a situation that led the former being stripped of his office as the Prime Minister by the Supreme Court and banned from politics for life.
And then we have the famous instance of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as Prime Minister appointing General Zia-ul Haq as the Army Chief in 1976. Within a year, Zia staged a military coup against Bhutto (1977) and subsequently through the Court’s help hanged in 1979 the most charismatic elected leader in Pakistan’s history.
Of course, the Pakistan Army’s role in Pakistan’s politics and its insatiable hunger for real power in the country is no secret. No wonder why it is said that Pakistan is not a country with an Army but an Army with a country. Pakistan has been under direct military rule for 33 years since its creation in 1947. It has spent several decades under direct military rule in three stints – 1958 – 1971; 1977 – 1988; and 1999 – 2008. And when not directly ruling, the military has always kept the civilian government away from three crucial areas – nuclear weapons; foreign policy, particularly vis a vis Afghanistan, India, China and America; and of course military issues (no question of the Army remaining under the civilian rulers).
But what is not equally emphasized is that it is the Pakistani Army that dominates the country’s economy too. In her well researched book ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’, leading Pakistani defence analyst Ms Ayesha Siddiqa has provided how the Pakistan army possesses 12 percent of the country’s land, out of which two-thirds is owned by senior military officers. She argues that the military’s economic power rooted in “its historic role as a defender of the nation’s security” has expanded rapidly in recent decades to include a vast array of commercial enterprises too. These include everything from land development projects to heavy manufacturing to retail businesses, all owned or controlled by the military through various front companies.
She provides detailed accounts of several vital military-owned enterprises, including “the Fauji Foundation”, which is involved in everything from cement production to fertilizer manufacturing to banking. She also examines the military’s role in land development projects, a major source of controversy in Pakistan in recent years.
Other Pakistani experts like former civil servant and respected freelance Pakistani columnist Irfan Husain have lamented how “The military has long been expanding its footprint across Pakistan’s cities through its multiplying defence societies.” According to him, “Land is acquired [by DHAs] at nominal rates from provincial governments, and developed with money taken as advance payments for residential and commercial plots from officers. And what is more disturbing, “allotment letters are then sold to civilians at several multiples of the price they paid.”
There is a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Report that also says that Pakistan’s military is one of the largest “conglomerates of business entities in Pakistan besides being the country’s biggest urban real estate developer and manager with wide-ranging involvement in the construction of public projects.” And these entities are not exactly separate and do overlap, giving double advantage to the military.
Besides, the report points out how the military runs the civil aviation authority along with Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), the national institute of health, various state-owned firms, the government agencies in charge of power, water, telecoms and housing. Above all, top ex-soldiers have also secured many top-flight positions including as ambassadors to important countries.
With such preponderance of the Army in Pakistani polity over the years, last few Generals no longer considered it necessary to rule directly the country by staging military coups. They have preferred to exercise the power, which is the real power in the country, from behind the civilian rulers. In fact, when people talk of “the establishment” it does not mean the Prime Minister and his ministers and civil servants. “Establishment” in Pakistan meant the “consensus” of the country’s elites as whole, but led by the Army.
As Sushant Sareen, an avid Pakistan-watcher and Senior Fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation says, “ This consensus—call it the “Idea of Pakistan”, if you will—is made up of the military along with other influential segments of the society and polity, including businessmen, landed gentry, professional classes (bankers, lawyers, doctors, etc.), judges, bureaucrats, politicians, and some clerics. At its most basic, the establishment is the ruling class, which is not always the same as the ruling party or coalition”.
But this very consensus seems to be broken today. Sareen adds, “This elite consensus that kept the country together has been shattered. Institutions of the state are working at cross purposes. Pillars of the state are arraigned against each other. The elites are baying for the blood of their political opponents. On the face of it, the political turmoil in Pakistan is just another no-holds-barred struggle for political power and domination. But in reality, it is nothing if not an internecine war among the elites, in which the winner takes all”.
To put it differently, at present, many elites are not prepared to accept the Army as the leader. That explains why Imran Khan and his supporters have not hesitated to attack some army establishments in Lahore and elsewhere. They seem to have huge public support. Even the judges, who earlier legitimized always every army action, including the military coups, are openly questioning it today. Sareen points out in this context how Imran Khan is being supported by a section of the superior judiciary led by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Umar Ata Bandial. The High Courts of Islamabad and Lahore have also been dishing out favorable verdicts to Imran and his followers.
Viewed thus, the Army seems to be no longer feared or respected in Pakistan, something that was unthinkable years ago. And that means that the arrest of Imran Khan may not necessarily end the woes of not only but also – and this is more significant, General Munir. We may see a prolonged paralysis of Pakistan’s polity.
(THIS PIECE HAD FIRST APPEARED IN EURASIAN TIMES)