Pakistan’s men in uniform have historically been as manipulative as the politicians if it suited them.
The late Gen. Zia-ul Haq’s whispered words in the ears of his one-time mentor Lt. Gen. Faiz Chisti “Mursheed, marwa na dena” (mentor, don’t get us killed) has entered Pakistani folklore and still sends shivers down the spine of all politicians! It’s a statement that typifies so much that is wrong with Pakistan, then and now. Lt. Gen. Chisti was Zia’s junior and thus not deserving of the “mursheed” tag, but Zia was goading his junior to undertake a coup d’état against the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, ironically called “Operation Fairplay”!
Pakistan’s men in uniform have historically been as manipulative as the politicians if it suited them. All three formal coups by Ayub Khan, Zia-ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf were accompanied with insincere promises of immediate elections. Ayub ruled for 11 years, Zia for 10, and Musharraf for nine years -- only personal health, mysterious death or unsustainable unpopularity forced them out. When not officially in power, the generals were content with the charade of “democratically elected” governments, as they went about “selecting” these with impunity. The Establishment in Pakistan (meaning the military) never belonged to any political camp and was switch sides whenever necessary. In turn, they have backed the PPP of the Bhuttos, the PML(N) of the Sharifs and even the PTI of Imran Khan, and booted them out whenever the politicos crossed Rawalpindi’s “red lines”.
An otherwise wily politician, Nawaz Sharif ran into trouble with all six Army Chiefs that he personally appointed (usually bypassing seniority), on the misplaced presumption of their loyalty towards him. Without exception, all six ran into him hard. After getting bumped out by Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, he had famously called the shadowy Establishment “Khalai Maqlook” (invisible aliens) which surreptitiously decided the fate of Pakistan. Nawaz was essentially right, and they continue to do so.
Pakistan’s general election is now due in November 2023, and all eyes are on the Establishment to second-guess the direction in which it will march this time.
A relatively unknown, non-controversial senator from the Balochistan Awami Party (also called King’s Party for its pro-Establishment stance), Anwaarul Haq Kakar, has taken over as caretaker Prime Minister, to manage the show in the interim period. Given that the Establishment is not beholden to any political camp (despite Shehbaz Sharif’s claims of “good relations with the military”), the Establishment will continue feigning its much-ridiculed claim of “neutrality” till the last minute, to ensure that it gets the government that suits it best.
One thing is clear: with the rising popularity of Imran Khan, despite his incarceration and possible disqualification, his PTI might easily win a popular mandate and insist on a puppet candidate, chosen by Imran. Such a scenario would be simply unacceptable to the Establishment, with both the current Army Chief, Gen. Asim Munir, and his predecessor, Gen. Bajwa, having personal axes to grind. Washington too would fear the unreliability and theatrics of Imran Khan. So, despite any theatrics by the PTI, the Establishment can’t afford to back Imran or his PTI in the top job.
There are four possible routes for the Establishment to march towards after the elections. First, to stitch together yet another coalition of the unwieldy, with the larger Sharif-Bhutto coalition (along with other anti-PTI forces). This discredited bunch could tactically agree to continue the unnaturalness of this equation as the best of bad options. But will the Establishment agree to associate itself and besmirch its already wounded reputation?
Second, persist with the caretaker arrangement under the plausible pretext of a national emergency, and to buy time. The Constitution will not be amenable to such extensions, but then the Constitution is just a piece of paper for the Establishment.
Third, if no single party or coalition is feasible, cobble together a national government of credible technocrats (which won’t appear threatening to the Establishment) -- like banker Shaukat Aziz under Pervez Musharaf (who was PM in 2004-07). In a country that has genuinely got tired of corrupt and failed politicians, and the Establishment’s surreptitious ways, citizens may welcome such an option of perceived do-gooders with domain expertise (as the unseen levers stay with the generals).
Lastly, repeat the Ayub-Zia-Musharraf formula of legitimising the obvious? That seems unlikely, but it all depends on the risk appetite of Gen. Asim Munir. He is an unknown oddity in that he ticks several non-functional boxes: he’s a rare “Hafiz-e-Quran” (who has memorised the Quran), has an insight into the governance levers after having been the head of both Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence before becoming Army Chief. Gen. Munir has served in Saudi Arabia and is not known to be a hawk on Afghanistan, and is thus amenable to the important Arab sheikhdoms as well as to Washington. He is taking on the terror group Tehreek-a-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and so even the Chinese, given their serious security concerns over CPEC investments, wouldn’t mind a security-focused person at the helm. Despite all their concerns about democracy and legitimacy, therefore, the influential “outsiders” wouldn’t really mind if Pakistan were again to be directly run from Army House as the residence of the head of government.
The Establishment will decide the final direction as the situation evolves and options emerge. The only person who seems to be persona non grata (as of now) is Imran Khan. The “State within a State”, as the Pakistani military is often described, was and is the “real McCoy” in Pakistan. Which way they will march depends on how events develop.