Although Imran’s challenge offers the first real opportunity for a truly civilian dominated government and free democracy, it seems to have run its course.In Pakistan, the more things change the more they remain the same. As the dust is settling on the riots of 9-10 May, the Army and the establishment have got their act together and clamped down with a vengeance. Imran Khan has been granted bail and a brief respite from arrest by the courts, but it is just till 31 May. He has also been placed on a “no-fly list” and banned from leaving the country. Over 7,000 protesters have been arrested and face trial under the Army Act (though the legitimacy to trial civilians through Army courts is questionable). Some of his key supporters, including Shireen Mazari, Fayyazul Chohan, Fawad Chaudhry and over 40 others have jumped ship and resigned, in “forced divorces”. There is even a proposal to ban Imran Khan’s PTI party for the mayhem its supporters had unleashed in the wake of his arrest. That may be constitutionally illegal since an entire party cannot be banned for the handiwork of individuals, but such legalities are unlikely to deter the establishment. In all this, the much-needed IMF loan has been stalled indefinitely and investors are pulling out of the crisis ridden country in droves.
Imran is fond of reminding his country that it is headed for a “1971 moment.” There are great parallel in the events of those days, when the country broke up because a legitimate election was denied. It is also a barb at the Army reminding them of their crushing defeat and the capture of 93,000 of their soldiers. But while 1971 saw the creation of a prosperous new country, Bangladesh, the truncated Pakistan limped on in much the same manner and the Army came back to ascendency in just a few years. This may not be so grave a moment, but yes, it has seen the Army challenged as never before. As the country totters, a few scenarios of endgame are emerging, none of them which provide much solace for Pakistan.
Imran returns to Power
This scenario seems increasingly unlikely seeing the manner in which Imran has been cornered. But if Imran manages to avoid arrest and prevent his party from breaking up, he could well win the next elections. The judiciary and the present Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial are favourably inclined to Imran, and so far, have acted impartially. But Justice Bandial’s tenure ends in September, and the next incumbent may not be so lenient in the 145 odd cases racked up against him. However, should the judiciary still remain impartial and allow Imran to contest free and fair elections, he could win. But then what?
Imran coming back to power is not the panacea for Pakistan. Quite the contrary. As a Prime Minister, his disastrous policies are directly responsible for the state Pakistan finds itself in. He disregarded experts on economic policy. He single-handedly damaged relations with the USA, Saudi Arabia, UAE and even to some extent with China. And of course, his antagonism to India put paid to any hopes of normalcy. Even the former Army Chief, Gen Qamar Jawed Bajwa seemed to have seen the light, when he said that good relations were essential for Pakistan. But Imran had consistently denied that, and continued to fuel the fire by his ill-considered statements. And then there is his own dealings with the Army and the other political parties. Imran Khan is known to be a very vindictive man, who as PM even visited the cells of his jailed opponents to personally ensure that the air conditioning and other amenities were cut off. He is unlikely to extend a warm handshake to get the opposition parties together to help pull Pakistan out of its morass. Nor will he resort to any niceties with the Army. Flush with power, he is likely to target General Asim Munir himself—with whom he has a long antagonism—and set it on another confrontation course. Eventually, Imran’s only allies would be the Islamic extremist groups—including the Tehrik-e-Taliban, Pakistan—for whom he has a soft spot and even released its jailed cadres. “Taliban Khan” could well put Pakistan down a disastrous road, and with none of the arms of government machinery working in tandem, its dissolution could be even faster.
ARMY REGAINS CONTROL
After the blatant show of anger towards it, the Army seems to have got its act together. Imran’s reminder of the “1971 moment” has also hurt. And even though the Army has not won any of its external wars, it has not yet lost a battle against its own countrymen. It would not want to let go of that dubious record.
Gen Asim Munir’s language in a leaked video—in which he threatened to finish the protestors (“mitti me mila denge”), targeted women and children and even the veterans who sided with them—shows that there are no-holds-barred now. There is talk of a rift within the Army, especially amongst junior officers, who are attracted to Imran’s ideology, and some sections of the senior leadership, but the extent is not verifiable. But the Army will stand together now—they have too much to lose if they lose power. Also, a split within the Army could well weaken the only remaining power structure in the country, and that could put Pakistan truly on the course to civil war.
It is unlikely that martial law will be declared, or that the Army will directly take over. The Army’s battle is not with the government this time, it is with Imran. They will use the government and its arms to target him by proxy, discredit him and ban his party. Perhaps he could even be imprisoned or sent to exile so that he no longer poses a threat. They could then retain control through the next “selected government” and let the same happy state of affairs continue.
TALIBAN IN THE WINGS
One of the stark images that come to mind are the parallels between Pakistan and of Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Afghanistan was then reeling under economic, social and political chaos, and corruption and anarchy were rampant. The Taliban simply rode into power in the chaos and attracted thousands with its ideology of radical Islam. The situation in Pakistan is not so grave, yet. But one glance at Pakistani news tells of virtually daily attacks on security forces and government installations virtually in the NWFP and Balochistan. That gives an idea how rapidly the TTP is gaining control over the border areas—perhaps in conjunction with the activities Baloch Liberation Army in Balochistan. In 2013, when faced with a similar situation, the Pakistan Army launched Op Zarb-E-Azb, a determined campaign to uproot Islamic fundamentalism. Their response is lacklustre now, in spite of the casualties they themselves are taking. Maybe the Army is too distracted by the political battles to focus on the main threat facing the country.
The further this state of affairs continues, the greater are the chances of the TTP entrenching itself deeper. The TTP is ideologically linked to the Taliban and both have the common aim of imposing Shariat in Pakistan. Unless the Army clamps down, the TTP will creep in closer and closer and then be impossible to contain. The spectre of the Taliban gaining ascendency over a nuclear armed state, at war with itself, is the greatest threat to the region and the world.
MOST LIKELY END STATE
Although Imran’s challenge offers the first real opportunity for a truly civilian dominated government and free democracy, it seems to have run its course. Imran will find it difficult to stay afloat in the raft of cases against him and his allies and most trusted lieutenants are abandoning ship. That will make it difficult to win elections, provided, of course, that the PTI is allowed to contest them.
In all probability, the Punjab and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa provincial elections which were to be held in May as per a Supreme Court directive, will be pushed forward indefinitely citing the present unrest in the provinces. That would deny Imran a huge launch pad. The national elections due in September may be similarly postponed (perhaps facilitated by a new Chief Justice in the chair). The present government could also declare a financial emergency, citing the damage caused by this unrest. The more the elections are postponed, the more time would there be to discredit Khan and cripple his party. And when elections do take place, it will bring in another “selected government” and the same cozy relationship could continue—till the next crisis.
It is unlikely that any international power will intervene. The US, for all its talk of democratic principles, is far happier dealing with the Army. China sees the workers on the CPEC threatened by the unrest, but the Army is the best guarantor of security for them. And the Indian government has merely shown Pakistan the indifference that it deserves. This state of affairs with an unstable Pakistan too focused on their internal battles suits us, since it precludes their mischief elsewhere. Perhaps the only concern for all lies in ensuring that its nuclear assets remain under some kind of control.
The best-case scenario, of course, would be that Imran’s face-off finally succeeds in curtailing the powers of the Army, and reduces its interference in government. A legitimately elected government (not Imran’s) perhaps made up of a coalition composed of calm, pragmatic minds, could then reduce Army influence and perhaps take a new trajectory on India-Pakistan ties. But that may be wishful thinking. A pragmatic look shows that the “Arab Spring” moment has come and gone and now it is back to Army ascendency, as usual.
And at the end of it all, will Pakistan survive? Of course, it will. It will simply continue to limp along in the same manner, with little structural changes. The country will go on in the same vein, and the army will continue to have a country.
Ajay Singh is the international award-winning author of six books and over 200 articles. He is a regular contributor for the Sunday Guardian,