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Is Pakistan’s Powerful Military on the Ropes?

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Is Pakistan’s Powerful Military on the Ropes?

There is a powerful surge of public anger against the military’s political interference. But Pakistan’s civilian politicians are too caught up in their personal feuds to capitalize on the movement.

Is Pakistan’s Powerful Military on the Ropes?

Police officers throw stones towards supporters of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan during clashes, in Islamabad, Pakistan, May 10, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo

Last week, supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) went on a rampage, expressing great anger toward Pakistan’s powerful army. Between May 9 and 12, PTI workers in several Pakistani cities vandalized the houses of high-ranking senior army officers in military cantonment areas, set fire to key government and army installations, blocked roads, and damaged metro stations.

The violence erupted hours after the Rangers, a paramilitary force led by Pakistan Army officers, arrested former cricket star turned politician and Pakistan’s ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan on the premises of Islamabad High Court in a corruption case on May 9.

After Khan’s arrest, the videos and pictures of vandalism from Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, were unprecedented. It reminded me of the Arab Spring, when several Arab nations launched an uprising in the early 2010s against monarchies and undemocratic forces. The majority of the Arab Spring protesters were middle-class youth seeking dignity. They were seen burning down the properties of powerful rulers and monarchies on the streets. In a similar pattern, thousands of angry young men and women took to the streets in Pakistan to resist the arrest of Khan on May 9.

While the current government insists Khan was arrested after an impartial legal investigation, the PTI alleges that the former prime minister was targeted at the direction of the powerful military. The military has massive influence in local politics, having directly ruled the country for approximately 35 years out of Pakistan’s 75 years history. Even when not directly in control, the military has a proven track record of political interference, manipulating and breaking political parties and using politicians against each other in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s top court ruled on May 11 that Khan’s arrest was illegal and ordered his release. After being granted interim bail by the Islamabad High Court on Friday, Khan again criticized Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and further went on to blame the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Asim Munir, for his dramatic arrest.

Such widespread opposition to Pakistan’s military has not been seen in decades. Khan’s PTI poses the biggest challenge to the Pakistan Army today. It seems that Khan has weakened the military hegemony in Pakistan, if not entirely eliminated it. He has also been widely successful in exposing military corruption and malpractice in Punjab province, which used to have a long-standing tradition of aligning with the military.

After his release, Khan claimed there is a new plan to humiliate him by putting his wife in jail and using sedition charges to jail him for the next 10 years. The PTI leadership also claims the military establishment is trying hard to break Khan’s political party and spread fear among his workers by arresting them.

Despite the fear of a crackdown, hundreds of thousands in Punjab have decided they won’t allow this creeping interference by the military in politics. Khan, who was once accused of being the hand-picked prime minister of the Pakistani military establishment, has now become its harshest critic and has been campaigning for civilian supremacy since being ousted in a no-confidence vote in April 2022.

Ironically, the former anti-establishment alliance of political parties, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which is currently in power, has now positioned itself as the most ferocious defender of the Pakistan army. Pakistani liberal elites and political parties use TV platforms and social media to accuse Khan and his party of treason – the same tactics Khan and his party, on the behest of the Pakistan army, once used against his opponents in the past.

Still, Khan is not backing down. He openly accuses the military of toppling his government and plotting two assassination attempts on his life – a charge the Pakistani military vehemently denies via its mouthpiece, Inter Services Public Relation (ISPR), and pro-army journalists. Despite the denials, the public still supports Khan’s anti-army narrative. This is why the crowd went on a rampage soon after his arrest, vandalizing the Corps Commander’s house in the eastern city of Lahore.

In another unprecedented and shocking event, Khan’s supporters stormed Pakistan Army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, which for decades has remained untouchable. But local press coverage of these mass anti-army protests has hardly been visible. Pakistan’s traditionally anti-establishment political parties and civil society, including journalists, have turned a blind eye to the widespread crackdown and political victimization of Khan and his party due to personal enmity against the politician.

Pakistan’s liberal and progressive class, who previously supported former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz’s stance on human rights, civilian supremacy, and democracy while opposing military intervention in politics, do not back Khan and his party’s narrative today. Few have condemned the political witch hunt and crackdown on PTI.

PTI officials report that more than a dozen party workers have been killed, another 100 or more injured, and 1,500 have been booked since May 11. Apart from that, PTI’s top brass is imprisoned. Journalists and YouTubers criticizing the government crackdown have been detained without a charge. Internet services were also suspended for more than four days.

Unfortunately, Pakistani civil society, liberal voices, and democratic forces rarely speak out against these illegal actions. It appears Pakistan is so divided that most Pakistanis tend to be selective in their campaigns for human rights, civilian supremacy, and democracy.

This selective approach by Pakistani civil society, liberal voices, and so-called democratic parties has only strengthened the military and weakened political parties seeking to challenge military intervention in politics. Such divisions among political forces and civil society have left little room for democracy to flourish in Pakistan. Instead, politicians often turn to the military to gain power and weaken their opponents, perpetuating a cycle of military intervention in politics.

The military establishment previously favored Khan, as it did Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party. It again now backs the Sharif and Bhutto clans – but will only do so until their interests diverge.

However, Khan has weakened the hegemony and dealt a severe blow to the military. It is time for pro-democracy Pakistanis to cash in on this opportunity, unite and push the army back to the barracks instead of weakening each other. Otherwise, the cycle of political victimization will continue. It is Khan today; history tells us it will be another politician tomorrow.