Pakistan Army and Imran Khan: From Macro to Micro Management Post Polls
Brig (retd) Rahul Bhonsle

In surveying the outcome and post-election trends in Pakistan two clichés come to mind, “the more things change the more they remain the same,” and “while states have armies, Pakistan Army has a state”.

To the world, elections to the National and Provincial Assemblies in Pakistan on 25 July signified democratic transition from a civilian led government for the second time in the last 70 years of turbulent political history of the country. Ostensibly to perceptive observers including the European Election Observation Mission to Pakistan 2018, there was, “lack in equality of opportunity,” for all political forces to operate. Many would believe this to mean a preference for the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaaf (PTI) Party led by Mr Imran Khan and marginalisation of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) which was in power prior to the elections.

Who could be so powerful as to deny equal opportunity in political space to parties in Pakistan? The finger of suspicion falls on the Deep State or Establishment - the fearful combination of Pakistan Army and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) roping in the Supreme Court of Pakistan - a formidable institutional alliance. The exercise to favour PTI may have commenced as far back as in May 2014, when the PMLN Chief Mr Nawaz Sharif made a trip to New Delhi much against the advice of the Pakistan Army to attend inaugural ceremony of the Government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was August the same year (2014) that the dice was rolled with a lock down in Islamabad led by present prime minister in waiting Mr Imran Khan on the plea that the 2013 elections in the country were rigged. This lasted for 126 days from 14 August to 17 December 2014. Mr Khan called off the protests after a signal from the military that there was no possibility of a change over as Mr Sharif dig in his heels.

Mr Nawaz Sharif’s India policy, his old feud with former Army Chief and President Pervez Musharraf and attempts to invigorate the trials of accused in the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist attack or investigations of Pathankot 2/16 strike on the Indian Air Force base possibly convinced the Army that he had to be eased out. His close confidant who has now fallen out with him, former Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, indicated that he had warned Nawaz not to confront the state institutions meaning the Army, “time and again.” The disqualification of Mr Nawaz as the Prime Minister and Party President followed by a 10 year sentence in the Avenfield Reference case for not being ‘sadiq and ameen’ and providing adequate proof of legitimately earned income is now a part of the legacy of allegations of pre-poll rigging. The timing of each action against Mr Sharif – such as disqualification as the President of the Party on the eve of the Senate elections or a fast track trial and sentencing on the Avenfield Reference case - speaks of military precision designed to upset the PMLN applecart prior to the polls.

The shift in the public opinion was evident from the gallup polls results announced a day before the vote on 24 July with the incumbent King’s Pakistan PTI Party gaining a lead over the PMLN for the first time. Importantly this is possibly the first time that the Pakistan Army has succeeded in political engineering to place a government of its choice in Islamabad. 370,000 security personnel including Army personnel were deployed for the elections inside polling centres and with powers of executive magistrate. In comparison when the security threat was possibly much higher in 2013 70,000 troops were deployed. Having achieved the objective of a pliable Mr Khan who has announced that he will be sworn in as the Prime Minister on 11 August despite falling short of a clear majority by over 25 seats in the National Assembly, the military hopes that it will be able to control the core functions of the State, overall aim being to protect its institutional interests.

Broadly speaking, Army’s demands on the PTI led government would be to let the vast strategic assets that it has created for disruptions in Jammu and Kashmir and further deep in India – the Lashkar- e Taiyyaba, Jaish-e Mohammad et al - remain undisturbed, the trial and investigations in 26/11 and 2/16, Mumbai and Pathankot, left dormant, no opening of trade with India and passage through to Afghanistan or Central Asia, and so on. The Army will have no objections to talks with India provided these include Kashmir and avoid references to cross border terror. Maintenance of strategic depth in Afghanistan through a pliable government in Kabul and/or the Afghan Taliban/Haqqani Network is to be pursued even if this causes the mayhem seen in the pre-elections terrorist attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan which saw over 150 deaths. Relations with the United States will be tempered within this framework.

The best laid out plans however may not fructify in the manner that the Pakistan Army desires, particularly in as uncertain a domain as politics in Pakistan. Mr Imran Khan will enjoy only a slender majority and the opposition alliance reworking on the lines of the defunct Charter of Democracy, which saw the PMLN and the Pakistan People’s Party leaders come together in the past, are fast burying their differences. The first meeting of the opposition held on 30 July outlined that they also have sizeable numbers with the PMLN, PPP and others almost equal to Mr Khan and the PTI. They are likely to use this to advantage, first to call for a judicial enquiry into the polls outcome and then to possibly upset the coalition applecart in the future. This will only increase reliance of Mr Khan on the Pakistan Army. How far the former World Cup winning cricket captain will be willing to tow the script, or if like his predecessors including Mr Nawaz Sharif who were foisted by the Army, break free from the apron strings of the General HQ remains to be seen? The Pakistan Army may find it difficult to put the Imran genie back in the bottle.

All in all the Army will remain deeply immersed in micro managing politics with Mr Khan at the helm.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation)

(The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct).

(The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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