Army set to play bigger role in poll-bound Pakistan

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Just as Pakistan had begun preparing for the parliamentary elections, its army chief, Gen Asim Munir, acted swiftly to ensure that popular cricketer-turned-politician and former Prime Minister Imran Khan was rendered ineligible to contest the elections. Imran was arrested, convicted and imprisoned on the charges of corruption. The army chief’s antipathy towards Imran is deep-rooted. He had been appointed to the highly sought-after post of the ISI chief by then army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. Then PM Imran, however, demanded and secured the appointment of his favourite, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, as the ISI chief. Imran thereby overturned the proposal of the politically savvy General Bajwa to appoint Lt Gen Munir as the ISI head. Thereafter, it was only a question of time before General Bajwa orchestrated Imran’s exit as PM by ensuring that he lost parliamentary support and was forced to resign.

General Bajwa, thereafter, ensured that his blue-eyed boy, Lt Gen Munir, was appointed by the Shehbaz Sharif government as the army chief in November 2022. It was General Bajwa who had also kept ‘back channel’ talks and other channels of communication with India open. In the meantime, efforts by Shehbaz and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar enabled Pakistan to get the Biden administration’s support for IMF assistance. Saudi Arabia and the UAE also fulfilled their promises of aid to Pakistan. Islamabad, however, remains an ‘international economic basket case’, which can manage its economy only with large doses of foreign aid. Interestingly, an important factor that facilitates this foreign aid is Pakistan’s readiness to continue supplying arms and ammunition to Ukraine.

In keeping with Pakistan’s constitutional practices, PM Shehbaz tendered his resignation recently. Together with the Leader of the Opposition, Shehbaz proposed the name of Anwaarul Haq Kakar, a Pashtun who was elected to the Senate from Balochistan in 2018, to be the interim PM till the parliamentary elections are held. Kakar is among the very few prominent people in Balochistan who have a friendly relationship with Pakistan’s army establishment. It is clear that in these circumstances, the interim administration will unhesitatingly abide by the wishes of General Munir. Pakistan, meanwhile, continues to provide weapons to Ukraine to keep the US happy. It remains to be seen whether Russia will continue with its generous supplies of oil to Islamabad. Moscow has, quite evidently, continued oil supplies to Pakistan after being persuaded/pressured to do so by Xi Jinping-led China.

Unlike his mentor General Bajwa, who was measured in his rhetoric about India, General Munir has described India as a “threat to regional peace”, while seeking action by the international community against New Delhi over Jammu and Kashmir. These comments were voiced by General Munir at an event to celebrate Pakistan’s National Day on August 14. Given the fact that a newly appointed army chief has to appear to be tough while speaking about India, this speech was inevitable. He would also have to bear in mind the challenges he faces internally in Balochistan and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Moreover, now India does not have to provide urgently needed items such as wheat and medicines to Afghanistan through Pakistan — such assistance can easily be provided through the Chabahar port in Iran or by air.

India is now working on rupee payment arrangements for trade with a number of countries in its neighbourhood. Pakistan may find itself further isolated in South Asia if it continues with its present policies. But that is a choice for Rawalpindi and Islamabad to make. Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’ China has foreign exchange reserves amounting to $3.17 trillion. Beijing should surely have no problem in providing just 0.01 per cent of these reserves at this time of need to its trusted friend Pakistan. Beijing is, after all, now steadily increasing its presence in Balochistan’s Gwadar port. But whether it is in Sri Lanka or Pakistan, President Xi Jinping is very parsimonious in distributing dollars even among his needy partners.

General Munir would not be the first army chief who is worried about political resistance to his leadership. He has to be careful while focusing attention on the opposition he faces, not only from the public, but also from sections of the military which favour Imran. His primary attention would initially be on dealing with challenges that could be posed by an imprisoned Imran. There is little doubt that Imran enjoys widespread public support. One should, however, not be surprised if Imran’s support base is substantially eroded by both coercive and financially lucrative measures to lead his supporters to join rival camps. Imran himself is behind bars after being convicted of alleged financial improprieties. There has so far not been any sign to suggest that political support for the former PM is increasing. While there is certainly a significant measure of public outrage at the manner in which he was ousted and then jailed, not many Pakistanis are going to get actively involved in resurrecting Imran’s political fortunes.

The present Pakistan dispensation will receive support from the US and its allies. Russia will, meanwhile, understand why Imran — who had visited Moscow when the Ukraine war was just commencing, for which he earned the wrath of the West — may not be participating in Pakistan’s domestic politics for quite some time.

One hopes that the military establishment in Pakistan will bear in mind that while India will not interfere in the neighbour’s internal affairs, it does have the means and assets to respond strongly, if provoked. The Pakistan army is engrossed in laying the groundwork for playing an increasingly dominant role in the country’s polity and in decisively shaping the results of the national elections. That is, however, not new in Pakistan’s history!

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