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Imran Khan has Pakistani army ducking & defending. Why it’s a historic moment for the subcontinent

The army's word used to be a command for any government of the day. It could hire, fire, jail, exile, or murder prime ministers. But now it fears defeat at the hands of politicians.

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Since its founding, Pakistan’s army has built a consistent record of launching wars on India and losing. It is a record of unblemished consistency. There is, however, another battlefield where it has an equally consistent record of winning. Which is where it is staring at defeat. We will elaborate on this in just a bit.

On fighting and losing wars with India, there will obviously be some nitpicking. The tough fact is, after so many wars, this army has lost almost half of Pakistan (Bangladesh), destroyed its polity, institutions, economy and entrepreneurship, and driven out its talent. Finally, it has even less of Kashmir (think Siachen) than it started out with.

So where is it that its record of winning has been equally consistent and it is now on the retreat?

Check out this entire press conference by Lt Gen. Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, the serving chief of the almighty Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which vanquished the Soviet and American powers, the KGB and the CIA, in Afghanistan. Chaperoned by Lt Gen. Babar Iftikhar, the chief of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), he has spoken for nearly an hour and a half. All of this was invested in defending himself, the ISI, his chief and the army.

Now, never mind that Elon Musk has stolen that metaphor for posterity, please allow us also to use it: Let that sink in. This is the ISI that all of Pakistan both loved and feared, loved and loathed, that friend and foe held in awe. It only had to wink, nod and sometimes nudge, and most of the Pakistani media would fall in line. If you didn’t, you might end up in jail, exile, a corpse in a gutter or in a strange land. In some cases, all of these. Think Arshad Sharif, the former ARY anchor. He was fired and exiled, as was his boss. Sharif turned up dead in Kenya, apparently shot by the police in a matter of mistaken identity. If you believe that, you must be high on something totally illegal.

Now, we had the ISI chief, institutionally among the most powerful men in the world at any time, at a press conference with a hand-picked friendly audience (most of the respected publications were excluded). Usually, his word and his chief’s were an order for Pakistan’s media, politicians, and often also the judiciary. The chief of ISPR was his constant messenger.

Now, both of them, speaking on behalf of their institution, were claiming victimhood. When the Pakistani army goes to the media complaining about a political leader who they evidently fear, you know that its politics has taken a historic turn.

Also Read: The Great Damagers: Why Pakistan will debate which dictator harmed it more, Musharraf or Zia

Pakistan’s army is brilliant at scrapping with its political class and winning. Now it fears defeat at the hands of its politicians too. To that extent, Imran Khan might be on the verge of a victory that would mean even more in political terms than his team’s cricket World Cup win in 1992. If the Pakistani army can finally be defeated by a popular, if populist, civilian force, it’s a history-defining moment for the subcontinent.

It’s history-defining because an institution that was never denied its supreme power except for a few years after the 1971 defeat is now seeking public sympathy with its back to the wall under a mere civilian’s onslaught. Its word used to be a command for any government of the day. It could hire, fire, jail, exile, or murder prime ministers serving, former and prospective. To understand that, you do not have to go far.

In 2007, it looked as if Benazir Bhutto was on the ascendant, after her return from her second long exile (the first return was in 1986, which I had covered in this India Today cover story from Pakistan). She was assassinated despite so many warnings that her life was in danger. Nobody has been punished yet. It’s buried in Pakistan’s history of conspiracies and eternal mysteries like so many others. Her party’s government was kneecapped and her husband subsequently reduced to an inconsequential, titular president.

Nawaz Sharif came back with a comfortable majority. He too grew “delusional”, from his army’s point of view, in beginning to believe that he was a real prime minister. By 2018, this army, under a chief he had appointed, had conspired and contrived to get rid of him, jail and exile him. It ensured that his party didn’t get a majority in the election that followed. In the process, they also built, strengthened and employed Pakistan’s most regressive Sunni Islamist group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik.

Also Read: Read my lips, I’m hurting, says Pakistan’s National Security Policy. What it means for India

Imran Khan was then the army’s candidate, and does it matter if he fell short of a majority? The army and the ISI collected enough small parties and independents to give him a comfortable majority. Albeit at their sufferance. A majority was no issue for one seen as the boy of the boys.

Until, this ‘boy’ also began to believe that he was a real prime minister and was causing ‘discomfort’ at the army GHQ.

Worse, his delusions weren’t just domestic. He was now seeing himself as the new leader of the Islamic Ummah, a 21st-century Caliph of sorts in his own right. He was talking in shariat terms, bringing a Quranic curriculum, building a new agenda that was as Islamist as it was anti-West. Both of these alarmed the army. 

In the same state of political ‘high’, Imran started to believe he now bossed the army. That’s how the first, and decisive, fights broke out over top-level appointments. The first was over the appointment of the new ISI chief. The army chief had his way with Nadeem Anjum and Imran lost out over his insistence on continuing with Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed. This fight was, however, like a crucial league match before the final — the appointment of the new chief in November.

Think about what is the one thread that’s common to this entire ugly story of intrigue, betrayal, and now it seems, assassination too? General Qamar Javed Bajwa has been the army chief through all of these years. Appointed by Nawaz Sharif who he later fired and exiled, given a three-year extension by Imran Khan who he first created and then got fired, and now challenged by him.

Over the past five decades, two great political families have fought for democracy in Pakistan in their own patchy ways, although mostly by keeping the army GHQ on their sides. Both, the Bhutto family’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) are now tired and spent forces. One because of its shrinking footprint from Punjab, and the other because its only popular leader, Nawaz Sharif, is hesitant to leave the safety of exile in London and join the fight at home. Both are counting on the army to save their throne and skins.

This used to be business as usual. If the army was on your side, the world was yours in Pakistan. The reason these aren’t usual times is that today it is the army that’s staring at the greatest, scariest existential threat to its power and stature. This threat has come from a populist, riding democratic power. So what if it’s that often nutty and deeply flawed Imran Khan. Did we ever argue democracy is perfect?

Also Read: Why distrust-but-verify is a prudent response to Pakistan Gen Bajwa’s call to bury the past


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