Pakistan’s political system is entering a dangerous phase

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There is reason to believe that the establishment is disappointed in more than Prime Minister Imran Khan – their latest protege. It is, in fact, the current system of government that disenchants and disillusions them – the system that has been hastily put in place to protect the core interests of the Pakistani establishment and to deal with growing pressure from popular political forces in the post-Zia period.

The current system served two essential interests of the military establishment. First, it acted as a shock absorber against external and internal threats that had begun to hit and pressure Pakistani machinery following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Americans had abandoned the Pakistani military elite, which was their main ally during the Cold War and in particular during the Afghan “Jihad”. Washington began to hold its former ally to account on issues such as nonproliferation and the terrorism that was emerging around the world in the late 1990s. State over violence pressured the military elite to relinquish control over the power structure. Thus, a hodgepodge parliamentary democracy, with several executive powers still vested in the office of the president, was restored. The second fundamental interest of this system was to facilitate a flow of cash funds to the armed forces. No other institution needs a more regular flow of money into its coffers to continue to function as a viable military machine, capable of warding off internal and external threats to the country’s existence.

The system ceased to perform both of these functions long before Prime Minister Imran Khan proved incapable of leading a government. One external shock after another hit the military establishment – at least that is what the military establishment perceived and displayed through its external behavior, following pressure from Washington during decade – and the political system and the forces that preside over it have acted as silent spectators. On the contrary, in recent times political actors themselves have become a source of these shocks.

No political government in the post-Musharraf period has managed to run the economy in such a way as to generate enough revenue to provide regular cash for the army. We jumped from one financial crisis to another. Foreign sources of funding dried up and the political actors presiding over the system were not good at this either. One of the issues that has marred relations between the Nawaz Sharif government and the military rulers has been the provision of sufficient funds to raise new China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) security battalions.

The failure itself predates Imran Khan – Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari were no less of a failure, when it came to the basic interests of the army, they were only less visible.

Another establishment-related development has also had a waning impact on the fortunes of Pakistan’s political system. More than 20 years of war on terror has internationalized the Pakistani establishment and the intelligence services under their command. Successive army chiefs acted as the country’s chief diplomat and visited world capitals during their respective tenures. They are the ones who brokered deals and understandings with foreign governments in times of crisis. Any foreign dignitary visiting Islamabad has made the Headquarters (GHQ) a mandatory stop during their short stay in Islamabad.

Contrast that with the role Benazir Bhutto played as Prime Minister in 1993, when she secured the passage of the Brown Amendment in the US Senate and Congress, which led to the resumption of parts supply. US military replacements for the Pakistani Armed Forces – something that was seen as crucial to keeping US-provided weapons systems operational in Pakistan. Thus, in the post-Musharraf period, the Pakistani political system has hopelessly failed to serve the basic interests of the military. Imran Khan is only an external symptom of this failure. The failure itself predates Imran Khan – Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari were no less of a failure, when it came to the basic interests of the army, they were only less visible.

The question is what will replace this system? One thing should be clear as day: while the military dominates the system, they are not omnipotent within it. There are other centers of power. These other centers of power will exert as much force in shaping the future political system as the military would. A retired Army General told me that General Bajwa would be the last Chief of Army Staff (COAS) who did not command troops in combat during the War on Terror, nor to have seen his men kill militants in combat and be killed on the battlefield.

“Battlefield bloodshed and body bags change the psychology of combatants, they become more hardened in their attitudes and they become less tolerant,” the retired army general said. “[The] the next COAS will have less patience for traditional politics and more sense of entitlement.

Pakistani politics is about to enter a dangerously fragile period – the system could shatter into pieces at the slightest shock. There were good times when some untouchable intellectuals were advising the Pakistani political class to focus their political attention, subject the military to some kind of public or parliamentary scrutiny and make the military accountable to elected bodies. These pleas fell on deaf ears. Today, the army is totally autonomous in its political actions and has deep international ties. The heyday of the Pakistani political class is long gone. And the Pakistani political class has spared nothing for the rainy season.


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