G Parthasarathy

Military is tightening its grip in Pakistan

G Parthasarathy | Updated on December 31, 2019 Published on December 30, 2019

Prime Minister Imran Khan helped Bajwa enter the economic policy realm   -  REUTERS

In Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, army presence has extended beyond internal affairs to diplomacy and even economy

Many Pakistanis believed that cricketing icon-turned-politician Imran Khan would lead his country to new heights, much as he had led Pakistan to an unexpected win in the 1992 Cricket World Cup. Alas, to their disappointment, all that Imran Khan has succeeded in doing is leading his country to economic stagnation and greater political uncertainty.

Whatever pretensions and illusions Pakistan had of being a successful parliamentary democracy are now receding. Within two years of becoming Prime Minister, Imran’s bungling has led to a virtual military takeover of not just the country’s politics, but also its economy, and what little remained of its judiciary independence.

Well-known Sweden-based Pakistani academic Ishtiaq Ahmed described Pakistan as a “Garrison State,” in a book he authored about his country of birth nearly a decade ago. Ahmed declared that since 1958, “the Pakistan army continued to grow in power and influence and progressively became the most powerful institution. Moreover, it became an institution with de facto veto powers at its disposal, to overrule other actors within society, including elected governments. Simultaneously, it began to acquire foreign patrons and donors willing to arm it as part of the Cold War competition (the US), regional balance of power concerns (China) and ideological contestants for leadership over the Muslim world (Saudi Arabia, to contain Iranian influence)”.

Ahmed avers that over time, “Pakistan succumbed to extremism and terrorism within and was accused of being involved in similar activities within the South Asian region and beyond. Such developments have been ruinous to Pakistan’s economic and democratic development”.

Military politics

Nothing frightens Pakistani politicians more than prospects of a military coup, as this almost inevitably leads political leaders to arrest and eventual exile. Nawaz Sharif has faced this treatment twice, as have Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari. Even politicians who built their own political base nationally have been vulnerable to threats from the army, forcing them to leave the country — Imran Khan never had a national political following.

Former ISI Chief Lieutenant General Hamid Gul was one of the Founding Fathers of his Tehriq-e-Insaf party, which has long been regarded as the “B Team” of the army. The army is known to have backed large-scale demonstrations by the Tehriq-e-Insaf. The army has also played a key role in shaping political alliances to destabilise governments that become assertive. It is no secret that Imran Khan’s assumption of office as Prime Minister was engineered by the army.

The army in Pakistan plays a domineering role in the conduct of foreign and security policies, particularly on relations with India, the US, China, Russia and important Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Nawaz Sharif faced huge pressure from his army chief Raheel Sharif to not attend the inaugural ceremony of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister.

The ISI, functioning under the army chief, has an exclusive role in covert operations and — allegedly — backing terrorist groups in India and Afghanistan. But this role was substantially enhanced when Qamar Javed Bajwa was hand-picked by Sharif to assume office as army chief. Bajwa himself faced pressures from his colleagues, evidently encouraged by his predecessor, who quietly had him labelled as an apostate “Qadiani” when he was being considered for the top job.

Expanding reach

Not satisfied with their background role, General Bajwa and his ISI chief Faiz Hameed accompanied Imran Khan when he met US President Donald Trump in Washington. This was the first time that the army bosses were present in a White House meeting. Even before this meeting, Bajwa put his personal stamp on relations with China and Iran.

But, it is really in Kartarpur that Bajwa publicly put his stamp on his role in shaping relations with India, ostentatiously fraternising with Punjab minister, the loquacious Navjot Singh Sidhu, together with well-known Pakistani advocates of “Khalistan,” who were present. The ISI desire to create a Hindu-Sikh divide, using the services of Sikh communities in the UK and Canada, is evident.

Going beyond his role in internal politics and foreign policy, Bajwa has used an ever-obliging Imran Khan to enter the realm of economic policymaking, by getting himself appointed to the newly established ‘National Development Council’, Pakistan’s apex economic policymaking body. He thereby clearly signalled the army’s dissatisfaction with economic policymaking, to civilians. Pakistani businessmen and financial ministries have another extra-constitutional body, the country’s army, to which they are now answerable.

All this is happening with the economy still in the doldrums. While the economy has been bailed out in 2019 by augmented financial aid from China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, economic growth is down to 3.3 per cent — a fall of 40 per cent from the growth rate the previous year. This has been accompanied by similar rise in the fiscal deficit, with inflation soaring by the highest amount in the past five years. All this is happening amidst severe belt-tightening on welfare measures, necessitated by IMF demands.

Diplomatic ties

Pakistan is finding that despite embarking on a diplomatic overkill, it has failed to get the international community to back it in any significant measure on its territorial ambitions on Jammu and Kashmir, despite some sustained Chinese backing in the UN Security Council and other forums. Imran Khan seems to have gone on an ill-advised and counterproductive diplomatic overkill on Jammu and Kashmir, even amongst fellow Islamic countries.

Ignoring the vicious rivalries between major Islamic powers with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt on one side and Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Malaysia — led by the ageing Mahathir — on the other, Imran chose to join the hare-brained scheme by Mahathir to set up a new Islamic grouping to address problems of the Islamic world.

The Saudis, quite evidently with American backing, read out the riot act to Imran who, at the last minute, backed out of the Summit meeting earning the wrath of other participants. Despite Pakistan’s much touted “Islamic Bomb”, Imran learnt that it is money that matters in the real world.

India has played its cards well by its moves to promote energy security and cooperation with its western oil rich neighbours across the Indian Ocean. But, India’s own standing will depend substantially on its ability to maintain communal harmony and accelerate economic growth.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on December 30, 2019
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