BEFORE HE BECAME prime minister, Imran Khan was happy to hold forth about the role of the armed forces in Pakistan. They were so influential in politics, he told The Economist, only because civilian governments had been so ineffectual. Once in office, he said, he would change all that. Yet in early March, when his government lost an important Senate election, he did what he has done many times as prime minister, and rushed off to seek the advice of the high command, to the derision of his political adversaries.
For most of the period since independence in 1947, Pakistan’s army has either run the country directly, under military dictators, or pulled strings behind the scenes. Civilian politicians, in turn, have either rubbed along with the army or been ousted by it. No surprise, then, that far from Mr Khan putting the army in its place, opposition politicians contend that it was the army that awarded Mr Khan his current position. In return, they argue, Mr Khan has run a government of unparalleled subservience to the generals.
It is true that khaki tentacles seem to be reaching ever further into the business of government. For a long time retired generals have marched into ambassadorships and other sinecures. Jobs such as running the national disaster-management authority might come naturally to ex-soldiers, who are widely considered competent administrators. But current and former military men have gradually taken on more and more jobs that are central to the health of the economy. They run the civil aviation authority, the national institute of health, various state-owned firms including the national airline, and the government agencies in charge of power, water, telecoms and housing. To crown the army’s hold on the economy, a retired general, Asim Bajwa, heads the agency that supervises the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, helping funnel some $60bn of Chinese investment into infrastructure.
The main difference between Mr Khan’s relationship with the army and that of his predecessors, says Farzana Shaikh of Chatham House, a think-tank, is how harmonious it seems. “What is different about this particular government is the dropping of all pretence that it conducts policy independently of the military,” she says. Whereas previous governments sparred with the top brass, Mr Khan seems happy to do as he is told.
Mr Khan’s longest-serving predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, rose to prominence as a protégé of the military dictator of the day, Zia ul-Haq. But the army toppled him in a coup in 1999. After he came to power again in 2013, he bickered with the generals about their failure to clamp down on Islamic terrorism. At times during his premiership, the army was openly insubordinate, refusing to help disperse protesters who were paralysing the capital, Islamabad, for example. A television network that enthusiastically backed Mr Sharif mysteriously disappeared from the airwaves. Pakistanis widely assume that the army was behind Mr Sharif’s ban from politics at the hands of a special anti-corruption court in 2018. Since his ouster, he has railed publicly about the army’s interference in politics.
Mr Khan, in contrast, does not seem to be jostling with the generals. Instead, his relentless legal harassment of his political opponents has left him with only narrow political support and therefore especially reliant on the army, Ms Shaikh argues. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of army staff, assures diplomats he has no desire to run the country. He makes a show of calling Mr Khan his “boss”. And he does seem ready to help drum up votes from pliable politicians when Mr Khan’s powers of persuasion fail him.
No one imagines, however, that the relationship is really a two-way street. If the army comes to view Mr Khan as a liability, it is unlikely to have much compunction about dropping him, just as it did Mr Sharif. At that point Mr Khan may remember the view he expressed in opposition, that the generals “just don’t have the vision to run the country”. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “If you can’t beat them, obey them”