For those complaining about the lack of certainty in Pakistan, there is one thing certain—that in any next election, former Prime Minister Imran Khan will make a political killing. This is not just because he has emerged as the country’s most popular leader, but also due to the fact that no political player seems to want to fight him. Right now, he is the only politician who seems to be saying fashionable things like challenging the military, a narrative quite popular with the people.
Incidents such as the recent attempt on his life—that will never get investigated, or the investigation will never be accepted by him— have made Imran emerge as the only serious player in town. But are we looking at a future where the Pakistan Army will lose its significance and become more accountable and professional? The answer will have to be negative.
Pakistan Army won’t budge from its place
The reason for my scepticism is based on several factors. Starting from the simplest reason—the Pakistan Army and its agencies seem to be holding on despite the pressure. Even though the Supreme Court has ordered a police FIR in the assassination attempt on Imran, the report has fallen short of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)’s expectations. It only mentions assailant Naveed Khan and not Major General Faisal Naseer. Naseer is the DG (C) of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who Imran has blamed—on several occasions—for orchestrating violence against him and his party members. In fact, ISI and the Inter-Services Public Relations division (ISPR) are back to their usual tactics.
On social media and through public advertisements in Islamabad and other urban centres in Punjab, they are decrying Imran’s allegations against General Naseer. They are even forcing their weak political cronies from sensitive provinces like Balochistan to give statements in favour of the General. From Lt. General (retd) Asim Bajwa, Lt. General Asif Ghafoor to Lt. General Babur Iftikhar–all three ISPR chiefs have used similar tactics to either prop up the top boss or guard their organisation’s thick political skin. This has indeed turned into an ugly personal battle between General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the GHQ (General Headquarter)’s own creation, Imran Khan.
Personal battles pose a risk for Pakistan
The problem with such personal attacks is that the top boss and his cabal can get so upset that they are instigated to take control of the State. This is the closest that Pakistan stands at risk of martial law if Imran doesn’t back down. General Bajwa is still the Army Chief who recently elevated 12 of his protegees to Lieutenant General. What makes one nervous is the fact that the GHQ has still not sent names of potential candidates for the Army Chief’s position to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif despite little over a fortnight left in Bajwa’s retirement. This makes many wonder if Bajwa is considering staying on by force.
I am not sure if a chatter about martial law is anything beyond a tactic to scare the PTI. Former President Pervez Musharraf was the only General who imposed an emergency in 2007 while being hugely unpopular, and we know that it didn’t go well for him. General Bajwa, too, is not a popular man in his organisation, despite sources telling me that they have managed internal differences.
Bajwa’s men go home to families who are more in awe of Imran than him. Their sons and daughters socialise with a crowd that considers Imran an icon. An entire generation now can’t get rid of the narrative of corruption and lack of accountability. Seeing leaders getting framed and convicted and then freed has led to greater inclination toward mob justice. It is not that leaders from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have been proven corrupt in a court of law. They are simply perceived as corrupt by a population that believes they couldn’t be held guilty because all institutions— including the judiciary—are compromised. Documentaries like The Princes and the Playboy echo in people’s minds and are difficult to push away.
Imran is probably aware that Bajwa is playing games with him. And this is precisely why he has continued to muddy political waters to ensure that the Army top brass or the Prime Minister do not appoint a chief who is decisively against the PTI. Surely, Imran’s choice is Lt. General Faiz Hameed—a wish that might not be fulfilled. Under such circumstances, the PTI’s best bet is a General who would ensure ‘neutrality’, or not take sides come next election. In a new twist, Imran seems to have abandoned his bid to influence the choice, which could mean he is trying to tell other Generals that he is not just for Hameed, but will also work with them if given a chance to come back to power through elections.
Military in Pakistani politics
This brings me to the larger reason for my scepticism about the Army’s power getting decisively challenged in Pakistan. All major political parties, or even significant elements from civil society, are not interested in decisively ousting the military from politics—they are more interested in using it to their own advantage. As a political scientist in Pakistan told me on condition of anonymity, the problem today is that “you don’t know who is sleeping with whom.” Thus, both major parties fighting for the political soul of Punjab – the PTI and the PMLN – want a man who could either be theirs or not tilt to the other side.
Only the marginalised PPP has understood that it doesn’t matter who comes to the top. But the PPP, along with the rest, is reluctant to create a structural mechanism to harness the Army. Theoretically, all should have jumped at Imran’s idea to ‘draw operational lines’ for ISPR. Sadly, there is neither sufficient mutual trust nor the institutional thinking for parties to come together to solve the biggest problem that Pakistan has today—a warped civil-military divide caused by an uncontrolled armed force. Even civil society is divided on whether to condemn PTI supporters who abuse the military, or support them.
The military’s prolonged life is also due to parties not investing in their cadres or institutional systems and continuing to live by patronage politics. Even the PTI does not have evolved experts and expertise to deal with multiple pressing issues. But most importantly, this is so much just about the politics of central and north Punjab. It is disheartening to see the media ignore the disappearance of citizens in Balochistan (even women and children), tribal areas and Sindh. Or the continued agony of people in South Punjab and Sindh where after the disastrous flood, people are under attack by disease and deprivation. There are stories of a lack of resources and mismanagement by local leaders that need to be told. Such disconnect weakens public resolve to fight the Army.
Most possibly, Imran’s back-on-the-road march may not be able to pull huge crowds. Another assassination attempt is also not likely,which also means that he and the Sharif government will be left to fight a battle of nerves until the picture becomes clearer.
Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)