Aqil Shah produced a good summary to this question, affirming it and elaborating how the military controls the country.
He argues Pakistan’s military uses its rivalry with India to legitimize its political and economic power and to place itself above reproach. Although it has never prevailed in a military conflict, the army has waged a successful war against democracy, ruling Pakistan directly for roughly half the country’s post-independence history and wielding undue political influence over elected civilian governments for much of the other half.
The generals helped the current prime minister, Imran Khan, rise to power through a grossly manipulated parliamentary election in 2018. And now they run the country from behind the thinnest façade of civilian rule Pakistan has ever seen.
The military is however facing mounting political challenges.
The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)—a coalition of fractious opposition parties—has staged rallies against Prime Minister Khan’s government, demanding his resignation, and ultimately, targeting the military itself.
Many see the army as the real power behind Khan and the cause of the country’s political and economic woes.
THE REAL POWER
The real power lies in Pakistan is not with Imran Khan who serves as prime minister, but General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of army staff, who controls the country and makes key decisions.
He independently decides the country’s foreign relations with key allies such as China and Saudi Arabia, controls decision-making with neighboring Afghanistan and India, holds briefings for business leaders, and even makes important domestic policy decisions including the nationwide lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
Retired army veterans or civilians with close ties to the military hold key positions in Khan’s cabinet, including the ministries of the interior, finance, commerce, national security, and narcotics control. Active duty military officers even head important public-sector organizations that direct public housing and disaster management.
Elected civilian leaders have tried to roll back the military’s hold over national security, foreign policy, and budgetary allocations in the decade following Musharraf’s ouster. The generals responded by undermining both the PPP and the PML-N governments by openly defying them and threatening to topple their governments over policy disagreements. Military leaders were particularly upset with Sharif for wanting to limit the use of Islamist militants against India and for directly challenging the army’s assumed impunity by charging Musharraf with treason in 2014.
To replace the unfriendly Sharif, the generals found an ideal accomplice in Khan: an admired cricketer untainted by allegations of personal corruption and supported by sections of the educated, urban middle classes for his populist anti-corruption crusade against traditional politicians.
Moreover, Khan was willing to play second fiddle to the generals and reportedly colluded with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s most powerful intelligence agency, to stage months-long protests in 2014 calling for Sharif’s ouster over the alleged rigging of the 2013 election that had brought him to power. The military reportedly pressured Sharif to resign but backed off after opposition parties, including the PPP, unanimously vowed in parliament to oppose any military intervention.
To prepare the ground for Khan’s ascent to power, the generals had Sharif disqualified from holding public office in 2017 through a controversial judicial inquiry linked to the Panama Papers, a global investigation into the clandestine use of bank accounts in tax havens. The ISI also fomented defections in the PML-N, and some observers alleged that troops deployed in polling stations manipulated the vote count in the 2018 parliamentary election, actions that helped Khan’s party triumph.
THE HALFWAY HOUSE
The military has since tried to sustain this carefully curated halfway house between democracy and dictatorship by curbing every avenue of dissent and opposition.
It has put increasing pressure on civil society groups, the media, opposition parties, and even the judiciary.
The most disturbing tactic in its authoritarian toolkit is enforced disappearances.
In July, intelligence personnel dressed as police officers abducted Matiullah Jan, a prominent journalist known for his vocal criticism of the military, from a busy street in the center of the capital Islamabad. His captors had to release him within hours as the abduction was captured on CCTV and sparked outrage on social media. Others were less fortunate.
In recent years, the military’s intelligence agencies have forcibly disappeared regional Baloch, Pashtun, and Sindhi nationalists; human rights defenders; journalists; and professors. Reliable information is hard to obtain, but official statistics indicate that since 2009, the authorities have recovered 4,557 corpses of suspected victims of extrajudicial killing. Human rights activists say that 5,000 to 6,000 people have been forcibly disappeared since 2014, including Idrees Khattak, a 56-year-old rights activist, who went missing in November 2019 near the northwestern city of Peshawar. Following dogged efforts by his daughter and rights campaigners to secure his return, military intelligence officials admitted this past June that Khattak was in their custody. Like countless others, he remains there today.
The generals have sought to justify past coups and military rule by casting the supposed perfidy and corruption of civilian governments as a threat to national security. But a recent corruption scandal has exposed the military’s institutional hypocrisy and raised troubling questions about the extent of the rot within the higher ranks of the armed forces. An investigation by the journalist Ahmed Noorani revealed that family members of the influential former Lieutenant General Asim Bajwa—currently acting as the head of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Authority, which oversees $70 billion in Chinese-funded infrastructure projects under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative—own a multimillion-dollar commercial empire comprising shopping malls, residential properties, restaurants, and construction and telecom companies in Canada, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Bajwa denied the allegations, while military intelligence agents reportedly abducted a civilian official suspected of aiding Noorani’s investigation.
The army’s chokehold on the media has blunted the impact of the scandal. Officers from military intelligence agencies and the military’s media arm, the Inter-Services Public Relations, routinely decide which news stories receive top billing, which op-eds can be published, who can be interviewed on talk shows, what can be discussed on those shows, and even who gets to host them. The military has turned the country’s main anticorruption agency, the National Accountability Bureau, into a tool of political vendetta, using it to target the leaders of the PML-N and the PPP. The generals also manipulate the judiciary to convict political opponents, such as Sharif. Under duress, one judge complied with the military’s dictates to wrongfully sentence the former premier to seven years in prison in a corruption case. Those who refuse or defy the military can pay a heavy price. Qazi Faiz Isa, a judge in Pakistan’s Supreme Court, had to face an impeachment inquiry for “gross misconduct” after criticizing the military for engaging in “unlawful activities,” including censorship of the media and the distribution of cash to appease members of an extremist Islamist group that was involved in a violent standoff with the then PML-N government in 2017.
A CHALLENGE TO THE MILITARY
Recent months, however, have seen a mounting challenge to the military and to Khan. Pakistan’s otherwise fractious opposition parties formed an unprecedented united front in September under the umbrella of the PDM. Tens of thousands of opposition protesters gathered in the city of Lahore this past Sunday. In several fiery speeches from London (where he is on medical bail, with the Islamabad High Court having declared him to be “absconding” from charges in Pakistan), Sharif has turned his guns on Khan’s uniformed benefactors, naming and shaming Qamar Javed Bajwa and the ISI chief, Faiz Hameed, for ousting him from power, rigging the 2018 election, and installing Khan as their puppet. The PDM has given Khan until the end of January 2021 to resign and pave the way for fresh parliamentary elections, failing which the PDM plans to march on Islamabad in February to force the government’s hand.
The opposition’s campaign is likely to intensify in the coming months, as will the government’s attempts to dismiss and quash the protests. It is unclear whether the PDM will succeed. But there is no doubt that the military’s continued hold over Pakistani political life poses a clear threat to democratic freedoms and the rule of law. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, there is a broad agreement across the ideological spectrum of opposition parties on the need for civilian supremacy over the military. Academics, rights activists, and journalists continue to speak truth to power at great personal risk even as the military cracks down on civil society and imposes severe restrictions on free speech.
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