Pakistan: Imran Khan’s ouster reaffirms the Army’s power

Ashok Bhan-

Ashok Bhan

Ashok Bhan is a senior advocate, Supreme Court of India, and a geopolitical analyst. The views expressed are his own.

Imran Khan’s exit as prime minister of Pakistan has again showed the power of the country’s army. Even as the power struggle unfolded like an exciting T-20 cricket match in the country’s parliament and Supreme Court, there was no doubt who the unseen umpire behind the scenes was.

The countdown to the exit of the cricketer-turned-politician, who had no experience of governance before taking the prime minister’s chair, began when he decided to confront the army. Initially called a ‘selected’ prime minister, Khan began to have open differences with the Army chief, General Qamar Ahmed Bajwa. Matters came to a head with the appointment of the Inter Services Intelligence director general to the Peshawar command.

On the fateful night of April 9, the army ensured that the vote on the no-confidence motion against the prime minister took place as per the Supreme Court’s order, even if that meant opening the court at midnight for possible contempt proceedings. A prison van was also kept ready if the court were to issue detention orders for contempt.

Seeing the noose tightening, Khan told his Cabinet colleagues that he intended to replace Gen Bajwa with his favorite, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. Only some plain-speaking by the ISI director general and the commander of the 111 Rawalpindi Brigade persuaded him to kill the thought and fly back to his residence on the outskirts of Islamabad late at night.

Khan failed the masses of Pakistan. He couldn’t keep his election promise of a Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan). More importantly, he lost the confidence and support of the military establishment that had facilitated his victory in the 2018 elections.

Now he and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), are holding rallies to display their mass appeal and popularity. These rallies are aimed at exerting pressure on the judiciary and the military and building up support. Khan has been targeting the opposition leaders and, at the same time, blaming a foreign hand for using the opposition against him and creating instability.

It is not surprising that Khan is trying once again to shift the blame for his incompetence and failure to foreign forces. In the past three and a half years, there have been a series of incidents, including the attacks on Chinese workers engaged in CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) projects and the peaceful protests by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) demanding basic civil rights, where Imran Khan and his loyalists have blamed a foreign hand. Not only the PTI’s allies but important members of his own party have now turned against him.

New Dawn?

The Supreme Court’s judgment calling the National Assembly deputy speaker’s ruling disallowing a vote on the no-confidence motion unconstitutional and restoring the parliament was as it should have been. In any other country, such a judgment would have been a no-brainer. The court’s ruling was seen as a new dawn for democracy and rule of law, and the burial of the infamous ‘doctrine of necessity’ that had been used by the judiciary to legitimize extra-constitutional steps taken mostly by the military.

Though the no-confidence motion was placed in the parliament March 8, Khan lost power only when the military establishment declared lack of confidence in him. His simmering stress with the military had become prominent in the past few months, allowing the opposition to gain momentum and bring him to a crossroads.

It would be interesting to analyze what went wrong with Imran Khan and how the civil-military dynamics turned against him. While there are several factors, some developments are critical to understand the situation.

In 2018, Khan’s PTI was supported by the military as he was probably the best bet after a bad political innings (yet again) with Nawaz Sharif. During the election campaign, even two months before the polls, the statistics favored Sharif’s PML (N) till the military showered its blessings on Khan. PTI promised development and Khan was projected as a clean, selfless leader driven by the welfare of the state, someone Pakistan’s dwindling economy and declining human development index desperately needed.

For three years, a projection of comfortable civil-military relations was maintained until Khan’s inability to deliver and frequent controversial statements in international forums began to hurt the military’s position. The economy went from bad to worse, inflation stood at an all-time high, and Pakistan couldn’t persuade the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to move it out of the ‘grey list’. The perpetual struggle for external funding was hurting Pakistan’s ties with its Muslim brother states, and the strict conditions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) added to the woes of the masses.

Foreign Policy

For decades, Pakistan’s foreign policy has been defined by how it manages its relationship with the U.S. The relationship has been through highs and lows, but it hit its nadir during Khan’s tenure. The U.S. cut military aid and support to Pakistan over links with the Taliban.

Though the U.S. military has continued to engage with the Pakistani military on the peace deal with the Taliban, President Joe Biden has not called Imran Khan even once since taking office in 2021. When he did invite Khan to the U.S. Democracy Summit, the latter rejected the invitation. Instead, he has visited China four times in four years. He also visited Russia on the day President Vladimir Putin announced his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, Imran Khan has put Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the political parties supporting his government in a quandary, making the task of mending relations with the U.S. difficult. Without U.S. support, Pakistan may not be able to access urgently needed funds from the IMF to avoid a default on external loan repayments.

Pakistan needs $8.6 billion by June 30 just to repay external debts. Khan’s repeated praise for India’s independent foreign policy was in essence a critique of the Pakistan Army that has long steered Islamabad’s international relations. Even in opposition, he might serve a useful purpose for China and Russia who want to prevent Pakistan from getting too close to the U.S.

Khan couldn’t resist being openly critical of the U.S., playing his compulsive victim card without realizing that the military was keen to revive its ties with the U.S. given its relationship with the U.S. military and also Pakistan’s dependence on international financial institutions.

Pakistan’s relationship with New Delhi has seen its worst phase in the past three years. While a ceasefire was announced in Feb 2021 along the Line of Control, the bilateral relationship has remained stressed. Khan has probably been the most toxic Pakistani prime minister with his uncompromising targeting of the Indian leadership, accusing it in every possible forum of being run on Nazi ideology.

Ties with the Taliban have not improved since they took control of Afghanistan and gained independence from their Pakistani controllers. Even on issues like dealing with India, the differences between the Taliban and Pakistan are visible. The Taliban have also been at odds on other issues, the most important being the recognition of the Durand Line. Furthermore, Imran Khan has been unable to persuade any other country in the world to recognize the Taliban regime.

Khan’s closeness with former ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, and whispers of him being appointed the next army chief, did not comfort the military leadership. The Army’s decision to replace Faiz Hameed with Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum received a nod from Khan only after an unprecedented delay.

Problems Galore

Khan’s ouster is, however, not the end of Pakistan’s problems. He has left behind a broken, bankrupt economy on the verge of a meltdown; a divided and toxic political culture; strained foreign relations; governance that is drifting and an administration in disarray. His successor faces a herculean task to put the country back on the rails.

Pakistan’s crises are immediate, but Shehbaz Sharif’s space for maneuver is constrained. The turmoil — political, economic, and social — in Pakistan is just starting to unfold and the crown of thorns on his head will not be easily borne.

Shehbaz has to run the show with a disparate coalition. The components of the coalition have competing interests. They got together to get rid of Imran Khan. Beyond that single-point agenda, they compete against one another. None of them is going to sacrifice their political interests, thus pulling the coalition in different directions.

To face the onerous, even existential, challenges confronting Pakistan today, the last thing Shehbaz needs is such a coalition. He might be able to keep the motley crew together for a few months during which the partners will agree on some immediate economic measures and also some political and legal engineering to undo some of Imran Khan’s malicious deeds. But it seems impossible for the coalition to survive until August 2023 when the term of the National Assembly ends.

By November end, a new Army chief has to be appointed. Shehbaz will want to pick the next chief — it is now clear it will not be Faiz Hameed — before he demits office to a caretaker. More than the Army chief’s selection, political and economic factors will have to be kept in mind before deciding when to dissolve the National Assembly and hand over the reins to a caretaker.

At the political level, the Sharif government will want to make sweeping changes and cleanse the administration of Imran Khan loyalists. After getting rid of the speaker and deputy speaker, the government will try to eject President Arif Alvi, another Khan protégé.

There is the possibility of Shehbaz deciding to take a risk and hold office until August 2023. But this would mean managing the coalition and implementing tough economic measures and hoping the economy turns around. The chances of that happening are slim given the scale of the problems. Structural reforms take years, not months, and require strong political will, something politicians find hard to summon when facing an election. Even if Shehbaz is ready to implement tough decisions, his coalition partners will baulk.

India’s Choices

Therefore, chances are this government will only be there for an interregnum and will soon give way to a caretaker which will hold fresh elections by September or October, maybe even earlier.

As far as relations with India are concerned, Khan started his tenure by offering a hand of friendship. He subsequently completed the Kartarpur Corridor for Indian pilgrims. However, he turned against the Indian government and made personal remarks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, especially after the reorganization of Jammu & Kashmir in 2019. Therefore, a different prime minister at the helm now is seen as having a better chance of reopening trade.

The change in government might even enable a virtual SAARC summit, something Pakistan has been unable to hold all these years because of India’s objections.

The back channel is less likely to be affected by the change. It has remained operational even after so many crises. That there was no military escalation when an Indian missile misfired into Pakistan is credited to this back channel.

It looks like Pakistan is currently not a priority for India which remains focused on several international events, including the Ukraine crisis and next year’s G20 summit in Delhi.

But in a polarized world, it would be better for Pakistan to move forward with India bilaterally than to seek external help. India is always for peace and good-neighborly relations. For the economic betterment of the people of the subcontinent, an accommodative approach would be required by the leadership of both countries to keep the two competing neo-colonial wolves (the U.S. and China) at bay.