Imran Khan and the Generals

Imran Khan is unlikely to lose the army’s support anytime soon.

Imran Khan and the Generals

In this March 23, 2019 photo, Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, center, watches a parade with Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, and President Arif Alvi, in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Credit: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s 22nd prime minister, may turn out to be the second in the country’s history to complete at least one full term. The first prime minister to do so was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1972-77). Although the grapevine in the capital city, Islamabad, remains active with whispers foretelling the early end of Khan’s regime, a forced exit in the manner of his predecessors, who had lost the favor of the military, does not look likely. There is also talk of early elections, the possibility of which cannot be ruled out either.

Whatever the future holds, it will not be about political forces contesting each other independently or any semblance of a democratic process. Instead, the politically powerful military will carve out an option that is convenient for it institutionally and suits its long-term interests.

A popular adage in Pakistan is that the country’s prime ministers run the government with the help of the three As: Army, Allah, and America. Over the years, this popular saying has turned into a complex equation signifying power relationships that run the state. The army, which is the centerpiece of this three-part algorithm, needs a government that does not challenge the centrality of the military in power politics; can successfully manage negotiations with global powers to keep Pakistan relevant; and has the ability to maintain the military’s legitimacy domestically by ensuring that the competition with other politico-economic competitors doesn’t boil to an unmanageable conflict. The second of the three As, “Allah” is not just about religion but retaining the state’s basic ethos, which is built upon religion, and also a symbol of domestic relevance. “America,” on the other hand, is no longer just about the United States but includes dominant global powers as a whole, with a special emphasis on the West.

A government’s inability to keep the equation balanced makes it unpopular and, hence, dispensable. Keeping the balance between the three elements is a herculean task and almost impossible. This is why Pakistani governments have often lacked political stability from the outset.

The Khan government will probably complete its term, currently set to run through 2023, even though it does not look to be in a strong position. Khan has mounting problems domestically and an inability to confidently engage with international players.