Austerity was always coming for a cash-strapped Pakistan under Prime Minister Imran Khan’s tenure. As Khan won last year’s election and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and its coalition partners formed a government in Islamabad for the first time, one of the early challenges was how the Khan and his cabinet could steward Pakistan back to fiscal viability—probably with the International Monetary Fund’s assistance and conditions.
Now, almost a year later, matters have come a long way. Last month, Pakistan and the IMF finalized a bailout package of $6 billion, which will breathe temporary life into Pakistani affairs. Submitting to the IMF was a political embarrassment for Khan, who in his capacity as a charismatic opposition politician had criticized the institution as yet another device for the United States to crunch Pakistan’s freedom of maneuver.
The scale of the reforms the IMF is seeking this time in Pakistan remains extensive, focusing on shoring up the government’s revenue base and trimming waste at state-owned firms. The austerity that lies ahead will affect nearly every component of state spending in Pakistan. This week, Khan made clear that there would be few exceptions. Even Pakistan’s military—the country’s most powerful institution in all-but-name—won’t be untouched.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In an announcement through Twitter, Khan noted that the Pakistani military had undertaken an “unprecedented voluntary initiative” in submitting to “stringent cuts in their defense expenditures for next FY bec of our critical financial situation, despite multiple security challenges.” Khan said that the savings would go toward the development of Pakistan’s tribal areas and Balochistan. The announcement followed guidance from the Pakistani government in press conference in late-May that all institutions of the state—civil and military—would undergo cuts.
Later, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media arm, said that the cost reductions would not affect Pakistan’s “defense and security.” Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, the director of the ISPR, added that the reductions would have inputs from all three branches of Pakistan’s military.
The development is an interesting one peering into Pakistan’s often strained civil-military relations from the outside. Since his election victory last year, Khan has largely been seen as the latest in a long list of Pakistani civilian leaders to have been granted the military’s favor — particularly given the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s strained relationship with the military since 2016 and the Pakistan People’s Party’s much longer strained relationship with Rawalpindi.
How Khan and the Pakistani military arrived at the decision to make cuts remains unknown, but the decision nevertheless comes just months after the most serious military crisis between India and Pakistan since 2002. At the time of the crisis, commentators had speculated that the Pakistani military may have benefited from the short bout of escalation in demonstrating its value to the country’s security and making cuts to its budget politically unpalatable for Khan’s government as negotiations carried forward with the IMF at the time.
Today, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Pakistan’s military spending stands at roughly four percent of its gross domestic product. Islamabad is estimated to have spent some $11.4 billion in 2018, according to SIPRI. That’s lower in absolute terms compared to its much larger neighbor India, which nevertheless spends a comparatively lower 2.4 percent of its GDP on defense-related spending, including personnel costs and procurement.
The scale of the cuts to the Pakistani military’s budget remains to be seen, but Khan’s announcement should put an end to speculation that the escalation earlier this year with India was designed to seal in the military’s budgetary priorities by demonstrating its centrality to Pakistan’s national security.