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Pakistan : Imran Khan’s exit once again shows the real power of the Army

Imran 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.

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By Ashok Bhan

The exit of Imran Khan from the premiership in Pakistan has once again shown the power of the army in the country. Even as the drama unfolding in Islamabad which looked like a T-20 cricket match with full excitement was played at the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the National Assembly (NA), nothing was left to the imagination that there was an unseen umpire playing behind the scenes—the Pakistan Army.

Ashok Bhan
Senior Advocate Ashok Bhan

The countdown for exit had begun for the cricketer-politician, who had no experience of governance before occupying the PM’s seat, when he decided to confront the army. From being called ‘selected’ by the army initially, Imran Khan developed open differences with Army Chief General Bajwa. Subsequently, matters came to a head such as the appointment of the Director-General of the ISI to the Peshawar command.

On the fateful night of October 9, the army ensured that the vote on the no-confidence motion took place as per the orders of the Supreme Court, even if it meant opening the court at midnight for any possible contempt proceedings. To meet that eventuality, a prison van was also kept ready if the court issued detention orders for contempt.

Realising that the noose around his neck was tightening, Imran Khan even suggested to his cabinet colleagues that night that he intends to replace General Bajwa with his favourite, Lt General Faiz Hameed. Finally, some plain speaking had to be done by Director General ISI and commander 111 Rawalpindi Brigade before Imran finally gave up and flew back to his residence on the outskirts of Islamabad late in the night.

Khan also failed the expectations of the masses, couldn’t keep up with his election promises of Naya Pakistan and, very importantly, lost the confidence and support of the military establishment that facilitated his victory in the 2018 elections, which were also termed as Selection 2018 in Pakistan. Since his ouster, Imran Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is holding massive rallies to display the mass appeal and popularity. These rallies are aimed at exerting pressure on the judiciary and military establishment and also building the momentum of his support. He has been targeting the opposition leaders and, at the same time, blaming the foreign hand for persuading and using the opposition against him and creating instability in the country.

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While it is outlandish on his part to convey to the masses that the entire political opposition of Pakistan, the military establishment, and his party members are so naïve and vulnerable to foreign influences and monetary incentives, it is not surprising that Khan has once again tried to shift the blame for his incompetence and poor governance to “foreign forces”. In the last 3.5 years, there have been a series of incidents, including attacks on Chinese workers engaged in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects in Pakistan and peaceful resentment by the popular Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) demanding basic civil rights for Pashtuns, where Imran Khan and his loyalists have invariably blamed a foreign hand. Not only the PTI’s allies but also important members of the PTI have been frustrated and disappointed with Imran Khan and turned against him, making his chances of survival extremely bleak.

New dawn for democracy?

The Supreme Court of Pakistan’s judgment holding the ruling of the NA Deputy Speaker disallowing the vote on the No-Confidence Motion against the Prime Minister as ultra vires and unconstitutional, and restoring the NA was exactly what it should have been. In any other country, such an unanimous judgment would be a no-brainer given that it was an open-and-shut case. The SC ruling was seen as a new dawn for democracy, the upholding of the rule of the Constitution and law, and the burial of the infamous “doctrine of necessity” that has been used by Pakistan’s judiciary to legitimise and justify extra-constitutional steps taken mostly by the military.

Even though the no-confidence motion was placed on March 8, Khan lost power when he lost the unwritten no-confidence motion by the military establishment. His simmering stresses with the military started to become more prominent in the last few months which facilitated the opposition to gain momentum and finally bring Imran to the crossroads. It would be interesting to analyse 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 understanding the current situation in Pakistan.

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In 2018, Imran Khan’s PTI was supported by the military as he was probably the best option for the military after a bad political inning (yet again) with Nawaz Sharif. During the 2018 election campaign, even two months before the polls, the statistics favoured Sharif’s PML (N) till the military showered its blessings on Imran Khan. PTI promised development and Khan was projected as a clean, selfless leader solely driven by the welfare of the state, which 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 started to impact the military’s image and position. The economy went from bad to worse, inflation stood at an all-time high, and Pakistan couldn’t convince the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to move it out of the grey list. Perpetual struggles for external financial funding were adversely impacting Pakistan’s bilateral relations with its conventional Muslim brother nations, and the strict conditions of the International Monetary Fund’s indispensable loan added significantly 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 United States. The relationship has gone through its phases of highs and lows, but it hit its lowest in Imran Khan’s tenure. The US has cut military aid and support to Pakistan over links with the Taliban.

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Although the US military has continued to engage with the Pakistani military on the peace deal with the Taliban. US President Joe Biden has not called Imran Khan even once after assuming office. Following this, when President Biden invited Imran Khan to the US Democracy Summit, the latter rejected the invitation. Meanwhile, on the other hand, Imran Khan has visited China four times in four years. He also visited Russia on the day the Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his ‘military operation’ on Ukraine.

Nevertheless, Imran Khan has put Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and political parties supporting his government in a quandary thereby making the task of mending the relationship with the US difficult. Without US 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 only 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 US.

He couldn’t resist being openly critical of the US, holding his compulsive victimhood card without realizing that the military was keen to revive its ties with the US given its military relationship and also, Pakistan’s high dependence on the international financial institutions. Pakistan’s relationship with New Delhi has seen the worst phase in the last three years. While the ceasefire agreement was announced in February 2021 along the LoC, the bilateral relationship remained extremely stressful. Imran Khan has probably been the most toxic Pakistani Prime Minister with his uncompromising targeting of the Indian leadership, accusing it of being run on Nazi ideology in every possible forum.

Ties with the Taliban have not improved since they won 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. Also, the Taliban has been at odds on other issues as well, the most important is the recognition of the Durand Line. Furthermore, Imran Khan has been unable to lobby successfully for any other country in the world to recognise the Taliban regime.

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Imran Khan’s proximity to former ISI Director-General Lt Gen Faiz Hameed and whispers of his being appointed the next army chief were surely not comforting for the military’s senior leadership. The military’s decision to replace Faiz Hameed with Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum received a nod from Khan after a rather unprecedented delay.

No end to problems

Imran’s end is, however, not the end of Pakistan’s problems. He is leaving behind a broken, bankrupt economy that is on the verge of a meltdown; a divided and toxic political culture; strained foreign relations; governance that is drifting in its policies and an administration that is in complete disarray. His successor—Shehbaz Sharif—faces a Herculean task to put the country back on the rails. Pakistan’s crises are immediate, but Shehbaz’s space to manoeuvre is very constrained. The turmoil—political, economic, and social—in Pakistan is just starting to unfold and the crown of thorns being placed on Shehbaz’s head will not be easily borne.

Shehbaz will have to run the show with a disparate coalition. The components of this coalition have competing interests. They got together to get rid of Imran Khan. Beyond that one-point agenda, they compete against each other. None of them is going to sacrifice their political interests, which will end up pulling the coalition in different directions. To face the onerous, even existential, challenges that confront Pakistan, the last thing Shehbaz needs is this kind of a coalition. He might be able to keep this motley crew together for a couple of months during which the coalition partners will agree on some immediate economic measures, and also do some political and legal engineering to undo some of the malicious things Imran did. But it will be impossible for this coalition to survive until next August when the term of the National Assembly ends.

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By November end, a new army chief has to be appointed. Surely, Shehbaz would want to pick the next chief—it is now clear it will not be former ISI Chief Faiz Hameed, the man Imran wanted—before he demits office to a caretaker. More than the army chief’s selection, it is the political and economic factors that will also have to be kept in mind before deciding when to dissolve the National Assembly and hand it over to a caretaker. On the political level, the Sharif government will want to make sweeping changes and cleanse the administration of Imran loyalists. After getting rid of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, the government will try to eject President Arif Alvi, who is Khan’s protégé.

There is a possibility of Shehbaz deciding to take the risk and hold office until August next when the current National Assembly term ends. But this would mean managing the coalition and implementing the tough economic measures and hoping that the economy turns around. The chances of that happening are extremely slim given the scale of problems. Structural reforms take years and not months. They require strong political will, something that politicians will find difficult to summon when they are facing an election. Simply put, even if Shehbaz is ready to implement the tough decisions, his coalition partners will baulk and perhaps even desert him.

India’s choices

Therefore, chances are that the Shehbaz government will only be there for a short interregnum and will soon give way to a caretaker which will hold fresh elections by September/October, maybe even earlier if the Election Commission works overtime.

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As far as relations with India are concerned Khan started his tenure by offering a hand of friendship to India. He subsequently completed the Kartarpur Gurudwara Corridor for Indian pilgrims. However, he turned against the Indian government and made personal remarks on PM Narendra Modi, especially after the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. Therefore, a different prime minister at the helm now is seen as having more friendly ties with India, particularly re-opening trade.

The change in the government might even be able to hold a virtual SAARC summit. Something Pakistan has been unable to hold all these years because of India’s objections. The backchannel is less likely to be affected by the change in the government. The backchannel between India and Pakistan is operational even after so many crises. There was no military escalation after an Indian missile was misfired into Pakistan and is being credited to this backchannel. It looks like Pakistan is not currently a priority for India as it remains focused on several international events, including the Ukraine Crisis and next year’s G20 in Delhi.

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But it is advisable that in this fast-polarising world, it would be better for Pakistan to move forward with India bilaterally rather than seeking external help. India is always for peace and good neighbourly relations with Pakistan.For the economic betterment of the people of the sub-continent, an accommodative and flexible approach would be required by the leadership of both countries to keep the two competing neo-colonial wolves (the US and China) at bay.

The author is Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India, and a
geo-political analyst

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