Is the all-powerful Pakistan Army’s grip on civilian government loosening? Is there division within Pakistan’s most powerful institution? Is the Army consciously deciding to keep its distance from the shenanigans of the political class at a time when the economic situation and the complexity of governance are extremely difficult?
If the Army, which has ruled Pakistan for most of the 75-years since Independence, decides to pull back and concentrate on its core duty of defending the country, democracy would have a better chance to flourish in Pakistan. The Army has time and again thrown out elected governments in Pakistan and had always presented a united front. Is that changing?
These questions are being asked primarily because Imran Khan is taking on General Qamar Javed Bajwa and his top aides publicly. He is blaming them for siding with his rivals. Nawaz Sharif had also taken on the Army but never as blatantly as Khan. His loyal followers have taken the cue from their leader are tweeting against Bajwa. But Bajwa’s term is over. He is retiring in November this year. His successor has not yet been named. So it is difficult to make sweeping statements on the role of the Army. But going by what is happening on the ground, something is afoot. But are observers making too much of it and the current situation is the usual jockeying for power among powerful generals all eyeing the top post?
“There are some in Pakistan who have been positing that the political feuding in Pakistan is only the expression of divisions within the Army and that one section supports Imran Khan for he would not have gone to the lengths he did without some support of this kind. There is no evidence for this theory and possibly will not be for some time but it does have a certain currency,” says TCA Raghavan, a former Indian High Commissioner to Islamabad. He follows Pakistan closely and has written The People Next Door: The curious history of India’s relations with Pakistan.
He adds, “In my view, there may be some sympathy for Imran Khan in the military — not in any conspiratorial sense but in the same way as there is in the rest of the country. But it is likely that his political agenda is of his own making. The military's control over politicians is never absolute and it is true that it has been reducing progressively over the years.”
It’s not that Khan is the first prime minister to fall out of favour with the military leadership. He was picked by the Army to oust Nawaz. The hybrid government ran smoothly for quite some time, but, in the end, differences seemingly arose between Khan and the Army chief. No one knows the details, but the first hint that everyone was not on the same page was over the appointment of the Pakistan’s spy chief last year.
The process for selecting the intelligence head is for the Army chief to send three names to the prime minister who selects one of them. No one knows what the actual problem was but there was delay from Khan’s side in approving the names. There were reports in the local press that he did not want to replace spy chief General Faiz Hameed at a time when the Taliban was setting up their government in Kabul in Afghanistan and the different factions were squabbling. Faiz Hameed was sent to broker peace among the feuding Taliban groups. His high-profile visit to Kabul was the talk of the town at the time.
The ISI chief had also ensured that Khan survived challenges from his political opponents and allies. In fact, he is said to have played an important part in sustaining Khan in power.
The other reason was what came to be known as the Bajwa Doctrine. The Bajwa wanted Pakistan to concentrate on development. He was also eager that Pakistan remained friends not just with China but also revived ties with the United States — once a firm allay. Bajwa spoke of normalising ties with India.
There was further hint of differences between the Army and its protegee Khan when Islamabad announced in April 2021 that despite the ban on trade with India after the Narendra Modi government scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in 2019, Pakistan would buy a limited quantity of sugar and cotton from India to get over an acute shortage. The decision was taken by the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) headed by Khan in his capacity as commerce minister. But the next day when the matter came up to the Cabinet, the decision was overruled and the idea was dropped. The sudden change was a genuine faux pax with the right arm of the government not knowing what the left is doing or differences inside the army. This was around the time that Bajwa was expanding theory of geo-economics, peace with India and regional connectivity.
The decision to buy cotton and sugar from India must have got the go-ahead of the Army chief. In all matters relating to New Delhi, civilian governments cannot take an independent decision. It is unlikely that Khan after approving the purchase in the Economic Coordination Committee would go back on it, unless he got a signal from some section within the Army. Whatever the reason these, pinpricks were indicative of some differences within the top brass.
Pakistani politicians are delighted when the generals pick them to head the country, and feel betrayed when they are dumped. Much as they blame the Army for not letting democracy function, the power-hungry politicians are partially responsible for allowing themselves to be used as pawns by the military. Every Pakistani politician has done so to come to power. It is only when they are thrown out that democracy and respect for the people’s mandate get bandied about.
Ironically Nawaz Sharif was the protégé of military dictator Zia-ul Haq, who promoted the Pakistan Muslim League to cut to size Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan People’s Party leadership. It was during Zia’s regime that Bhutto was imprisoned and hanged. But Sharif too fell out with the Army. In 1999, General Pervez Musharraf organised a coup to depose Sharif. He was imprisoned and later allowed to go abroad. But in 2011, Sharif returned to politics and led his PML(N) came to power in the 2013 elections. Khan came to power in 2018 when Bajwa used Khan as well as the Pakistan’s judiciary to remove Nawaz Sharif from power. Khan had been aiming for that since the election results of 2013, but did not get much traction till the Army decided to promote him.
As much as Pakistani politicians blame the Army for not respecting civilian governments’ mandate, all parties play footsie with the Army when it suits their political interests. When Benazir Bhutto became prime minister in 1988, Nawaz Sharif and his party tried hard to dislodge her government. Benazir did the same when PML was in power. Both the PML and the PPP learnt belatedly from bitter personal experiences that democratic parties need to support each other. The two parties signed the charter of democracy in 2006 and pledged not to use undemocratic means —the intelligence agencies and the army— to dislodge each other. Since then, the PML(N) and PPP have tried to follow through with the promise.
“The Army may be losing some of its legitimacy but certainly not its clout. There is no counter-veiling force to counter the military,” says analyst Ajai Sahani.
He added that Khan may be getting a lot of traction from the public, but even if he is elected prime minister with an overwhelming majority, there is no guarantee that he will not be asked to toe the Army’s line, more so in foreign policy.
Sahani recalled how former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, an extremely popular politician, was not just imprisoned on trumped up charges but General Zia-ul-Haq dared to get him hanged. The entire world had pleaded with the dictator to spare Bhutto in 1977, but he went ahead. However, times have changed, yet not so much as the recent execution of pro-democracy activists in Myanmar proves.
It is perhaps premature to talk of the Pakistan Army losing its power just as yet, despite Khan’s show of strength at taking on Bajwa. Much will depend on who takes over from Bajwa in November.