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Opinion | Pakistan’s Troubles Are Far From Over

BusinessOpinion | Pakistan’s Troubles Are Far From Over

For decades, Pakistan’s military has been the country’s most vital institution. Although it frequently intervened to oust elected governments, many Pakistanis saw this as salvation from the country’s blundering politicians. The army, it was thought, was the only force capable of holding the country together.

The question now is whether the generals can keep themselves together.

The military has suffered a catastrophic loss of prestige after the populist former prime minister Imran Khan directly challenged its influence. In response, Mr. Khan was ousted and jailed, and his party — despite winning the most parliamentary seats in a divisive February election — was shut out of a new civilian government that took power this month with the blessing of the military leadership. The country remains deeply polarized.

But an even greater concern for Gen. Syed Asim Munir, the army chief, is that the polarization extends into the military itself. It is common knowledge in Pakistani political circles that significant portions of the military leadership, powerful military families and rank-and-file officers are sympathetic to Mr. Khan’s right-wing, anti-American vision for the country, which included aligning Pakistan more closely with China and Russia. Whether this internal rift can be healed will ultimately decide the direction and stability of Pakistan, which has nuclear arms and is the world’s fifth most populous.

These divisions could hardly come at a worse time for Pakistan. The economy is near collapse, and General Munir is working to repair relations with Washington that were badly frayed by Mr. Khan’s politics. Pakistan is beset by political and security challenges on all sides, including by its archrival, India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, as well as Iran and the Taliban-held Afghanistan. Iranian forces launched airstrikes on targets in Pakistan in January, prompting Pakistani counterstrikes. This month Pakistani military posts were hit by militant attacks in the country’s south and along the border with Afghanistan.

The military, of course, bears much of the blame for the country’s predicament. After the decade-long military regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf ended in 2008, Pakistan returned to a fragile democracy. But the army leadership began to fear that the two dominant political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan People’s Party, were seeking to rein in military influence.

The generals faced other pressures, too. The United States imposed conditions on financial aid to Pakistan’s military in 2009 and killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in 2011. Later that year, 28 Pakistanis were killed in an accidental clash between NATO and Pakistani forces along the border with Afghanistan. A popular narrative gained ground, partly fanned by the army, that portrayed the United States as conspiring to undermine the nation’s sovereignty.

The military leadership sought a more cooperative political partner to help face these challenges and counterbalance the entrenched parties. It paired up with Mr. Khan, a popular cricket-star-turned-politician who had been a supporter of General Musharraf’s government and a harsh critic of Pakistan’s dynastic political families, which he accuses of corruption.

It backfired.

Mr. Khan, who was elected prime minister in 2018, inflamed Pakistanis with his calls to tear down the political establishment and reject American influence. But with inflation hitting double digits, he faced growing public criticism of his handling of the economy. He accused the military of conspiring with the United States to force him out, creating a rift. With a political crisis threatening to add to the economic problems, he was removed from office by a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April 2022 that bore the fingerprints of the military leadership.

When a high court ordered his arrest in May of last year, his supporters openly turned against the army, protesting in the streets and even attacking the residences of senior army officers and other military targets.

As last month’s elections approached, the military took steps to ensure Mr. Khan’s party would not win. He was sentenced just before the election to long prison terms on much-questioned charges of corruption and leaking state secrets, and severe restrictions were imposed on his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, that essentially barred its candidates from campaigning.

But Mr. Khan’s message — fanned by anger over the generals’ meddling — continued to resonate, and candidates aligned with his party stunned the military by winning the most seats in Parliament. The military kept them from power by engineering the current coalition government, which is headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and includes traditional parties that the generals once sought to marginalize by aligning with Mr. Khan.

In addition to a withering economic and security landscape, that government now also faces large swaths of Pakistanis who feel the election was stolen. The military, which is propping up the government, is powerful enough that it might very well weather the damage to its reputation, but it needs to get its own house in order.

Serving and retired officers have explicitly called for General Munir to take a softer approach toward Mr. Khan, and it is widely known in Pakistan that members of some military families participated in last May’s protests over how Mr. Khan was being treated.

General Munir is busy trying to extinguish that fire, reminding officers that the violence last May targeted the military and moving to gag dissent within the armed forces to stop pro-Khan sentiments from spreading further.

He may succeed in the short term, but this story is far from over.

General Munir’s three-year term expires in November of next year, and many officers expect that his successor could be more sympathetic to Mr. Khan — the enmity between the two men is widely believed to stem from a personal rivalry — perhaps even leading to new elections and Mr. Khan’s return to the political stage. This would not be unprecedented: Pakistan has a history of backroom machinations resulting in ousted leaders being brought back. (The prime minister’s brother Nawaz Sharif was removed three times as prime minister and twice went into exile. He returned ahead of the February elections and is expected to exert behind-the-scenes influence over his brother’s government.)

This is where things could get dangerous for Pakistan. Mr. Khan has remained intransigent, refusing to negotiate with his rivals in the military and political establishment. Many fear where a vengeful Mr. Khan could lead Pakistan if he were to return. And yet if General Munir tries to extend his tenure to retain the status quo, military disunity could flare.

Army unity looks likely to hold for the time being. But all is not well in the military fraternity. Unless Pakistan’s generals can patch the rift over Mr. Khan, the country’s political stability, its security and its future will be difficult to predict.

Ayesha Siddiqa (@iamthedrifter) is a political scientist at King’s College, London, and the author of “Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy.”

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