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  Opinion   Columnists  18 May 2023  K.C. Singh | Imran-Army row: Tragedy replayed or rebalancing?

K.C. Singh | Imran-Army row: Tragedy replayed or rebalancing?

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh.
Published : May 19, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : May 19, 2023, 12:05 am IST

A rebalancing of civil-military relations may happen if Khan physically survives the current impasse and later sweeps the general election

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. (Photo:PTI)
 Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. (Photo:PTI)

The imbroglio in Pakistan has been in the making ever since Imran Khan assumed office as Prime Minister in July 2018. It was a culmination of careful image building by the charismatic cricket superstar from marriage to a Jewish billionaire’s daughter to a populist-nationalist rabble-rouser steeped in Islamic piety. The Pakistan Army, under then chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, had succeeded in helping instal a fresh entity in the Prime Minister’s chair, who was aligned with their interests, at home and abroad. Former Prime Ministers Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had also received similar benediction. Both eventually fell out with the Deep State, resulting in the former’s hanging and the latter’s exile, on Saudi intervention.

The relations between Imran Khan and the Pakistani military were fairly smooth so long as both worked to marginalise the old political clans of the Sharifs and the Bhutto-Zardaris. Gen. Bajwa even got a three-year extension of tenure in August 2019, which was preceded by the current Army chief, Gen. Syed Asif Munir, then serving as the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), prematurely removed from his post on June 16, 2019 on Imran Khan’s insistence. The quid pro quo deal sowed the seeds of the current crisis. It is speculated Imran Khan was upset over an ISI report about the shady deals of Bushra Bibi, the ultra-conservative, purdah-practising wife of Mr Khan. Subsequently, differences between Gen. Bajwa and his erstwhile protégé began emerging over the handling of the economic and foreign policies by the government, as Imran Khan asserted independence.

The presence of Imran Khan in Moscow in February 2022, as Russia attacked Ukraine, and his subsequent rationalisation that if India can be neutral, then why not Pakistan, defied the Army’s preference to balance relations between China and the United States. Pakistan badly needs US military and economic assistance, besides its goodwill for IMF bailout. Media reports hinted that Gen. Bajwa also took exception to the abusive Punjabi words employed by Mr Khan about Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Even more crucially, differences arose over the handling of the economy by the Prime Minister’s handpicked finance minister, having questionable performance in past assignments. Thus, when defections ousted the Imran Khan government on April 10, 2022, the scene was set for the Khan-Army face-off. Reports soon surfaced about widespread corruption by Gen. Bajwa and his family.

In a great irony of Pakistani politics that the two traditional families which the Army joined hands with Imran Khan to destroy have now sided with the Army. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, in alliance with his family’s historic rivals, the Bhutto-Zardari family, now heads a coalition government. The nation’s economy faced a meltdown due to past mismanagement with foreign exchange reserves shrinking and the inflation raging. But Imran Khan was unlikely to back off as from his cricketing days he is known as a combative antagonist. He took to the streets, combining his charisma with neo-nationalism, as he charged the Army with targeting him to please the United States. To this populist-nationalist persona he had already grafted an additional dimension of Islamic piety, making him a rabble-rouser that Pakistan had not seen since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. For the Army-government alliance, time was running out as national elections must be held before November. Their dilemma is that the more they target Imran Khan the bigger he looms as an election challenge. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which Mr Khan used against his political foes with abandon, now sought him in a case involving land transfer by a tycoon to his wife’s trust. Unable to arrest him from his residence due to his party cadres blocking access, they erred by literally kidnapping him from the precincts of the Islamabad high court on May 9, where he was seeking bail. Two days later, as his supporters rioted, the Supreme Court let him off on interim bail. The Islamabad high court has now extended protection from arrest till first week of June.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Army has averred that it would not spare those who attacked military installations, including the burning of the house of Lt. Gen. Fayez Ghani, the corps commander in Lahore. Tapes went viral of relatives of the corps commander revealing that he had forbidden his troops from firing at the mob.

His quick removal from the post seems to confirm cracks in the higher military command. It is logical that similar divided loyalty may exist amongst the lower ranks and soldiers.

The visceral hatred between the current Army chief, Gen. Sayed Asim Munir, whose family hails from Jalandhar, and Mr Khan makes any kind of compromise unlikely. The Army called the attacks unpatriotic and doing what the external enemies “could not accomplish for 75 years”. This is strong rhetoric and the Pakistan Army has the blood of Bhutto Senior and his daughter Benazir on their hands. They may well have done the same to Nawaz Sharif had Saudi Arabia not strongly remonstrated, choosing instead to exile him. However, the geopolitical context today is different. The Taliban run Afghanistan and is largely out of Pakistan’s control. It has given refuge to Tehrike-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP), enabling that group to extend its influence deep into Pakistan and commit acts of terror. If the Army uses its courts to jail Imran Khan for sedition and corner his wife in corruption cases, the situation may get a lot worse, at least temporarily. The TTP could use the chaos to its advantage. On the other hand, the ruling elite may calculate that with leaders of Imran Khan’s party already detained, any agitation may be unsustainable.

The judiciary may go along if the government moves to postpone the general election and those in Punjab. But the political fissures are unlikely to heal quickly. China has publicly sought normalcy to return. The US, named as the chief conspirator by Imran Khan, has kept silent. Privately they would be discussing possible outcomes. The $6.5 billion IMF bailout is stuck as close to a national election no government in Islamabad would like to cut expenditure and raise taxes, which is the IMF’s normal condition precedent. Karl Marx’s oft-quoted saying of history repeating itself as tragedy and then as a farce may well be playing out in Pakistan. A rebalancing of civil-military relations may well happen if Imran Khan physically survives the current impasse and later sweeps the general election. As a Test match wizard he may yet deliver a win, albeit after causing great chaos.

Tags: zulfiqar ali bhutto, imran khan, pakistan army, nawaz sharif