The foregoing week has witnessed events that were atypical and volatile, even by Pakistani standards. The all-powerful military, whose near uncontested hegemony over Pakistani society has conferred upon it ‘holy cow’ status, has been rendered assailable in the public imagination. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan was apprehended by a battalion of Rangers, from the premises of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) on May 9. Following this, Khan’s angry supporters stormed the residence of the Lahore Corps Commander, ransacked and looted the building, and then set parts of it ablaze. Similar scenes were witnessed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, where a well-thought-out strategy to target army installations unfolded, including statues and memorials for the ‘martyrs’.
These were not mammoth crowds, but small groups of zealous young men (and a few women) playing out a carefully calibrated strategy to demonstrate that Imran Khan and his party were no longer afraid of the military’s might. These scenes, amplified by the viral nature of social media platforms, hit global headlines where questions about the Pakistani military are frequently raised. Unfortunately, the Indian media has had a field day since May 9, and these visuals for the Indian commentariat were a godsent opportunity to declare how Pakistan’s army was going to be defeated at the hands of Imran Khan and his ‘cult following.’
Pakistan’s friends must also be worried. The Saudis have a defense pact with Pakistan, whereby they rely on Pakistan’s military for the defense of the Kingdom in case it is threatened. The Chinese, whose primary engagement in Pakistan is with the military, must have wondered as to how their “good ol’ boys” might be losing control. And of course, Uncle Sam and the Western bloc must have been aghast, seeing their longtime partner entity under serious domestic political threat. But the international image, howsoever important it is given Pakistan’s bankrupt economy, is perhaps secondary to the domestic chaos.
As the rioting and violence on May 9 unfolded, misplaced rumours of the Army Chief being fired by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC) remained abound on social media. Accounts that are part of the PTI information ecosystem were echoing a single point: Imran’s arrest, and efforts to eliminate him politically as well as physically, are the doing of the incumbent Army Chief.
Lo and behold, after receiving a red carpet treatment at the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Imran Khan confirmed all of the above. While speaking to foreign journalists, victorious as the face of a new establishment, he blamed General Asim Munir. Khan also extended the olive branch that he would be willing to work with the Army Chief.
Despite this pragmatic assurance, the damage was already done.
A brutal crackdown ensued. PTI activists, leaders, and media personnel sympathetic to the party, were arrested one after the other, with unsavory scenes of women being dragged and police highhandedness in different parts of the country. At the time of writing these lines, a good number of PTI’s second-tier leadership is in detention, and the Supreme Court of Pakistan is due to take notice of the contempt of its order that directed holding of elections in the Punjab province on May 14. To counter the Supreme Court’s likely and predictable verdict, parties in the ruling coalition are organizing mass protests outside the Supreme Court building.
While it was clear since last April that the military leadership had decided to dump their coveted ‘project Imran’, they miscalculated the extent of support that Imran Khan enjoys within the institution itself.
The political class has chosen two institutions of the state that, in their respective worldviews, are biased against them. The PTI has already targeted military installations, and now the PDM will exert pressure on the Supreme Court Chief Justice and his ‘like-minded‘ brother judges. The net result is insane polarization, with the potential to actually undo the Pakistani state as we know it.
While it was clear since last April that the military leadership had decided to dump their coveted ‘project Imran’, they miscalculated the extent of support that Imran Khan enjoys within the institution itself. Supposedly the rank and file of the army, often cited in public discourses, is ‘deeply divided’ along political lines; between those who favour Imran Khan and those who do not. As we know from the questionable conduct of the former corps commander Lahore, this support extends to the generals as well.
Unverified audio leaks in circulation suggest that Imran Khan is viewed by relatives of the powerful as a savior and the right choice for the country. This is precisely what the military’s faux-strategists had been planning since 2011. In addition, the control of mainstream media and the vulgarization of social media spaces, with the express involvement of the miltablishment, is paying dividends. In part, Imran Khan’s supreme confidence is directly linked to insiders, sympathizers, enablers, courtesy of whom he has shown remarkable grit in challenging the Generals.
Similarly, Imran Khan has been successful in polarizing the judiciary wherein many judges think that Khan is righteous and needs to be protected from establishment’s wrath. This is why Imran Khan’s arrest by the Rangers was promptly declared illegal by the Supreme Court bench headed by the Chief Justice.
The truth of the matter is that the Army as a branch of the government, standing behind the ruling coalition, is how things should be. But given Pakistan’s history, Imran Khan and his supporters find it unacceptable, because the leaders of the ruling parties are ‘corrupt,’ while Imran Khan is not. Yet, the Chief Justice and his ‘like-minded’ judges giving special treatment to a popular leader of the opposition is somewhat extraordinary, given how this institution has treated Prime Ministers in the past and, most recently, the Chief Justice himself, who was a member of benches that eliminated another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, from mainstream politics. Regardless of the merits, the public impression is that of partisanship.
If they allow Imran to return, they will have to brace for a Pakistani Erdoğan who would reset the contours of the military’s hegemony. If they stop him through means fair or foul, they risk explosion of fissures within, leading to unmanageable crises.
Intra-elite contestation has reached its climax now. The Parliament has already discarded the Supreme Court’s orders setting wrong precedents. The politicians in power have targeted the judges, and vice versa. The Supreme Court is also at loggerheads with the military, and the historic alliance between the two stands broken. This chaos certainly favors Imran Khan and his invincible image as the challenger of the old establishment. Sections of the junta, a few judges, the middle classes, and segments of the media are keen to get Imran Khan back into power with a sweeping majority.
The generals find themselves in an existential dilemma. If they allow Imran to return, they will have to brace for a Pakistani Erdoğan who would reset the contours of the military’s hegemony. If they stop him through means fair or foul, they risk explosion of fissures within, leading to unmanageable crises. Both scenarios put Pakistan’s very existence in extreme peril.
Mass arrests, and media and internet blockades, have already created an authoritarian environment which is both unconstitutional and untenable in the current circumstances. The recent announcement to try the perpetrators under the Army Act is another red flag. It is time for the military and the government in power to undertake a reassessment and open a channel of dialogue with Imran Khan, unless they too want the country to burn.
It’s time for Asim Munir to purge the institution of the old order of his predecessor. He should declassify the details of the hybrid regime project from its beginning until its collapse ending in DG ISPR and DG ISI conference through a comprehensive ISPR debriefing naming each individual past and present. Then reiterate that military would no longer get involved in political engineering.
This will begin the process of truth and reconciliation, draw a line under military’s past, redeem NS honour, disown and out military’s assets in the judiciary and leave no option for Imran Khan to continue riding his high horse. His support among veterans is now shaken by the events of 9 May when stark reality has sunk in that a full scale attack against the military launched by IK activists would be against Askari compounds as the next targets. Rioters won’t discriminate what partisan views the residents in these compounds hold. I have talked to a few veterans and they were wishing for a truce fairly soon.
The question is whether a dialogue is even possible with forces that want to take all political space and are inherently autocratic/dictatorial. Otherwise, it will be ceding of political space only …akin to negotiating with Hitler.
Military high command need to put their hand where the heart is. If apolitical is the doctrine stay committed to it and carry on with it regardless. The only way to deal with Stockholm syndrome is to let the victims come to terms with the lack of overarching control of military in our society.
Just keep your attention on the security of the state and it’s institutions against foreign enemies.
The only way to put reins on the military is if someone with a strong character takes the Generals head on. IK seems to be the only person among the lot.
Strong wasn’t the word IK uses for his “character”. He said upward curve in the audio leak. Honestly can never work out his euphemisms.
What kind of Army do we have? Never won a war, always full of lies, making billions for its Generals, accounting for lion’s share of our budget. Time we cut the Army to size by reducing it to no more than a manageable 200k from its present 650k and reduced its budget to under 1% of GDP and 10% our budget. Let the political chips fall where they may.
You mean 550K military personnel should prepare for their release from service as PTI takes over.
Look forward to jobseeker lines.
Let them work on building and repairing the country’s damaged infrastructure, instead of simply sitting and eating tax payer’s money. They cannot win any wars for Pakistan, given their performance in all the wars they have initiated
The original discourse here in this article is that ‘ Eurdugan of Pakistan’ became powerful due to the political affiliation of the Pakistan Army.
After 9th May2023, where does the national Army of Pakistan stand?.
The Political Parties and versus the Pak Army – a game of top elites who continue to govern Pakistan without understanding that how to run Pakistan for the national interest of people who continue to suffer from this terrible elites and their unending greed and corruption. This sort of governance must come to end and it is a timely warning for the State of Pakistan – how to clear it mess and run Pakistan for the people of Pakistan.
There is an urgent need to create a balance between human rights and political stability. Unfortunately, PTI’ s agitational politics has led to chaos and political instability. No democracy has ever been sustainable without some semblance of political stability. Experience shows that elections without minimal rules of the game lead to more violence and instability which results in inadequate access of basic services such as health, education and water and sanitation.