There are reasons to believe that the establishment is disillusioned with more than just Prime Minister Imran Khan — their latest protégé. It is in fact the current government system that they are disenchanted and disillusioned with — the system that was hurriedly put in place to protect the core interests of Pakistan’s establishment and to accommodate mounting pressure from popular political forces in the post-Zia period.
The present system served two key core interests of the military establishment. Firstly, it acted as a shock absorber against external and internal threats that had started to hit and put pressure on Pakistani machinery in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Americans had ditched the Pakistani military elite, which served as their key ally during Cold War and especially during the Afghan ‘Jihad.’ Washington started holding accountable their former ally on issues such as non-proliferation and the terrorism that was rearing its ugly head around the world in the late 1990s. Internally, popular forces and groups challenging the state’s monopoly on violence were exerting pressure on the military elite to relinquish their control on the power structure. So, a hodgepodge parliamentary democracy, with several executive powers still vested in the office of the president, was restored. The second core interest this system served was to facilitate a ready flow of cash funds to the armed forces. No other institution needs a steadier flow of cash into its coffers to keep itself running as a viable military machine, able to ward off internal and external threats to the country’s existence.
The system stopped performing both these functions long before Prime Minister Imran Khan proved himself incapable of running a government. One after another, external shocks kept coming and ramming the military establishment—at least this is what the military establishment perceived and displayed through their external behavior, following pressure from Washington during the last decade—and the political system and the forces presiding over them acted as silent spectators. Rather, lately, the political actors themselves have become a source of these shocks.
No political government in the post-Musharraf period has succeeded in running the economy to generate enough revenue to provide steady cashflow to the military. We jumped from one financial crisis to another. Foreign sources of funding dried up and the political actors presiding over the system were no good on this count, either. One of the tiffs that vitiated the relationship between the Nawaz Sharif government and military leadership was the provision of enough funds to raise new battalions for the security of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Failure itself pre-dates Imran Khan—Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari were no less of a failure, as far as the military’s core interests are concerned, they were only less visible.
Another development related to the establishment has also had a dwindling impact on the fortunes of the Pakistani political system. More than 20 years of war against terror internationalized the Pakistani establishment and the intelligence services under their command. Successive army chiefs have acted as the country’s diplomat-in-chief, and toured the world’s capitals during their respective tenures. They were the ones who negotiated agreements and understandings with foreign governments in the time of crisis. Any foreign dignitary visiting Islamabad made General Headquarters (GHQ) a mandatory stop during their short stay in Islamabad.
Compare this with the role Benazir Bhutto played as prime minister in 1993, when she secured the passage of the Brown Amendment in the US Senate and Congress, resulting in the resumption of the supply of American military spare parts to the Pakistani Armed Forces—something which was considered crucial to keep Pakistan’s American-supplied weapons systems operational. Thus, in the post-Musharraf period Pakistan’s political system has hopelessly failed to serve the core interests of the military. Imran Khan is just an external symptom of that failure. Failure itself pre-dates Imran Khan—Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari were no less of a failure, as far as the military’s core interests are concerned, they were only less visible.
The question is what will replace this system? One thing should be clear as day: although the military dominates the system, they are not omnipotent within its framework. There are other power centers. These other power centers will exert as much force in shaping the future political system as the military would do. One retired army general told me that General Bajwa would be the last Chief of Army Staff (COAS) who had not commanded troops in combat during the War against Terror, or to have seen his men killing militants in combat and getting killed in the battlefield.
“Bloodshed in the battlefield and body bags change the psychology of combatants, they become more hardened in their attitudes and they become less tolerant,” said the retired army general. “[The] next COAS will have less patience for traditional politicking and more sense of entitlement.”
Pakistani politics is about to enter dangerously fragile times—the system could break into pieces with the slightest shock coming its way. There were good times when some intellectual untouchables used to advise the Pakistani political class that they should focus their political attention, bring the military under some kind of public or parliamentary scrutiny, and make the military accountable and answerable before elected bodies. Those entreaties fell on deaf ears. Now, the military is fully autonomous in its political acts and has deep international connections. The good days for the Pakistani political class are long gone. And the Pakistani political class has not saved anything for the rainy season.