Army Tightens Grip on Pakistan as Khan’s Popularity Decreases

The generals are back in control in Pakistan – unofficially that is.

There’s now more than a dozen former and current military officials in prominent government roles, such as running the state-owned air carrier, the power regulator and the National Institute of Health, which is leading the country’s pandemic response. Three of those appointments happened in the last two months.

The military’s heightened profile comes as Prime Minister Imran Khan sees his influence and popularity dwindle due to a slowing economy, high consumer prices and corruption investigations involving his close aides. Analysts have long seen army support as critical for Khan’s party, which holds 46 per cent of seats in parliament, to hold together a government that relies on several smaller coalition partners to stay afloat.

In some ways, this is nothing new: The military is Pakistan’s most powerful institution and has directly ruled the country for large parts of its seven-decade history. Yet it’s a far cry from the “New Pakistan” Khan promised when he took office back in 2018.

“By appointing an increasing number of current and retired military officials in key positions, the government is ceding what little space civilians had in developing and executing policy in the country,” Uzair Younus, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said by phone. “The military’s overt and covert role in governance continues to grow.”

Key roles

Many in Pakistan can see the shift during government virus briefings on state television, in which uniformed current army officers are seen assisting the government’s pandemic response. Retired lieutenant general Asim Saleem Bajwa is now Khan’s communication adviser and also oversees the implementation of about $60 billion in Pakistan investments as part of China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative.

At least 12 army loyalists in the cabinet also took part in dictator-turned-President Pervez Musharraf’s administration, which ended in 2008. That includes Interior Minister Ijaz Shah and Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, Khan’s finance adviser.

The greater military involvement even has the support of civilian government advisers such as Zaigham Rizvi, member of Naya Pakistan Housing Programme taskforce in charge of running Khan’s main economic project of building low-cost houses. Two army officers were appointed to the body last month.

“There was a feeling that if we give the majority leadership to the army, the army has a good system,” said Rizvi, who worked at World Bank for 10 years as an housing expert. “They get things done.”

Pakistan’s army declined to comment. Nadeem Afzal Chan, a spokesman for Khan, wasn’t immediately available, while Information Minister Syed Shibli Faraz didn’t respond to a request for a comment.

Economic distress

Khan has long dismissed allegations that he was too close to the military, saying in 2017 ahead of his election win that any notion that he’s an army stooge was a “bizarre conspiracy.” Last year he told local media “the army is standing with me.”

Yet economic distress from the pandemic is again raising tensions. Pakistan is the most infected nation in Asia after India, with more than 108,000 coronavirus cases and about 2,200 deaths.

The economy is forecast to contract for the first time in 68 years, with the central bank expecting the economy to shrink 1.5 per cent in the year ending June. The nation received an emergency loan of $1.4 billion from the International Monetary Fund in April, and is among countries seeking debt relief.

Questions over the army’s role in running the government came to the fore when the virus started escalating in March. While Khan addressed the nation and urged citizens to remain calm, it was the army spokesman who announced the lockdown the next day. Most of the press statements from the country’s virus nerve center, chaired by Planning Minister Asad Umar, are produced by the army’s media wing – complete with its byline and logo.

On March 24, Khan was visibly annoyed when reporters asked him “who is in charge here?” Although there was no reference to the military, he threatened to leave abruptly.

Then in late May, his aviation minister, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, defended the national carrier’s performance and its military leadership following a passenger plane crash in the financial capital, Karachi. “It’s not a crime to appoint people affiliated to the military,” he said.

Diminishing power

Khan’s hold on power will likely continue to diminish as current and retired army officers, as well as army-backed political appointees, assume more executive authority, said Arif Rafiq, president of New York-based Vizier Consulting, a risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia. He noted Khan will come under further pressure as Pakistan’s economic challenges continue to mount.

“The army has signalled its dissatisfaction with Khan’s handling of the coronavirus lockdowns – there are also indications that the army has not been happy with the handling of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as well as governance in Punjab, the largest province,” Rafiq said. “We’ve seen the chief military spokesman openly push for a tougher lockdown and a retired army officer assume roles as a government spokesman and top CPEC administrator.”

The military last year had already begun taking a more active role in policy making beyond foreign and national security policy, with Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa meeting top business leaders privately to find ways to boost the economy. The country’s Parliament adopted a law in January giving Bajwa a three-year extension starting from November 2019 and he was also made a member of a government’s economic board.

While many democracies appoint retired military officers to senior government positions, it becomes a problem if the civilians aren’t calling the shots, according to Michael Kugelman, a Washington, D.C. based South Asia senior associate at The Wilson Centre.

“And herein lies the risk to democracy,” he said. “If retired generals are more influenced by their former bosses than by their current bosses, then democracy is not being properly served.”

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