The Pakistan Army seeks to take control of the imperiled economy even as protests rage in Pakistan-Administered J&K
Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Asim Munir held an important meeting with top Pakistani businessmen in the port city of Karachi on 2 September, during which he outlined key economic policies and potential paths to a stable business environment for the troubled country. What a uniformed General schooled in the pursuit of warfare has to do with a country’s economy, and whether the interim Finance Minister Shamshad Akhtar, who is a former central bank chief, or even the interim Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, given the scale of the economic rot that has set in, ought to have chaired the meeting and sought to assuage the rattled businessmen are valid questions being asked by many. After all, it is common knowledge in Pakistan that all those appointed to the caretaker Cabinet mandated with holding elections are close to, and backed by, the military. Apprehensions are rife that if the caretaker set-up stretches beyond its constitutional tenure, a prolonged period without an elected government would allow the military, which has ruled the country directly for more than three decades of its 76-year existence, to consolidate control. Analysts believe that Kakar or Akhtar addressing the businessmen would have lent at least a visage of propriety to the exercise. Also, questions are being raised about whether mollifying the deeply disgruntled residents of Pakistan-administered Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), a region held forcibly by Pakistan and exploited fully by it, ought not be the priority of the Army Chief. From the Pakistan Army’s perspective, this should especially be so since calls for merger of the region with India-administered J&K are being raised with alarming frequency by the protesters with each passing day of their agitation.
General Munir’s meeting with about 50 prominent businessmen representing top business groups came as Pakistan’s traders went on strike last week against the soaring cost of living, including higher fuel and utility bills and record depreciation of the rupee against the dollar. Across Pakistan, traders had pulled their shutters down while protesters burned tires on roads to express their anger. The Pakistani daily The Nation revealed that at the meeting which was held at the Army House, businessmen, notably from Karachi, expressed grave concern about the economy and inquired when the elections would be held. They expressed the view that elections would stabilize the country, which was in the grip of unprecedented polarization. Businessmen Group Chairman Zubair Motiwala, however, claimed after the meeting that Munir had stressed that no political party was sincere with Pakistan. That, and the fact that a follow-up meeting of the businessmen has been arranged with the Army’s Karachi Corps Commander, would suggest that the Army’s takeover of the country is likely to be stealthy and total.
From other details that have emerged, in the four-hour long meeting with the businessmen General Munir left no stone unturned in conveying that he had taken direct charge of the economy, and that on account of his recent efforts brighter days lay ahead for Pakistan’s business community. The Army Chief, as per media reports, made his disdain for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) amply clear, saying that Pakistan would not opt for any new IMF programme as the fund does not accord permission to work freely, and because an increase in power rates was also a part of the IMF programme.
The Pakistani daily Dawn informed that the Army Chief shared during the meeting that on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, he had told Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman that he was not interested in a modest $1-2 billion investment into Pakistan, following which the Saudi prince assured of investing $25 billion under Pakistan’s Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) that is aimed at attracting investment in the agriculture sector by offering land and ensuring exports. General Munir also told the businessmen that he had requested the Saudi prince to grant $10 billion to Pakistan to help the country overcome its desperate foreign exchange crisis, adding that this amount would be returned in Pakistani rupees. Similarly, the Army Chief said he had requested the ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to give Pakistan $10 billion for improving its foreign exchange reserves. Munir told the businessmen that he would also solicit $25-30 billion in investments from Qatar and Kuwait on his next visit there. He summarized that he would try to bring in a total of $75-100 billion in investments from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait. The General, however, did not pause to explain how his proposed economic policy differed from the ‘begging-bowl’ diplomacy that the last few Prime Ministers of Pakistan had all relied on, and during whose periods in power the Pakistani economy had plunged alarmingly from record low to new record low.
It would appear that the Pakistan Army is gearing up for a prolonged period in which it would exercise full control over the country through the caretaker set-up. Some sections of the media highlighted the similarities between General Munir’s recent engagement with the businessmen in Karachi and those the infamous Pakistan dictator General Zia-ul-Haq had with a group of businessmen in Karachi in the 1980s to discuss ways to boost the Pakistani economy. Similar to the current dismal economic situation, Pakistan’s foreign debt levels were a concern during that period. Social and political unrest was also a key feature then, as it is today. Zia-ul-Haq had also met with a group of industrialists in Lahore to discuss the country’s energy crisis. Drawing a parallel between these meetings of the two Army Chiefs separated by generations, analysts observed that General Zia-ul-Haq had seized power and ruled the country for a prolonged period from 1978 to 1988.
Reports this past week of the extension of tenure granted to Nadeem Anjum, the Director-General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), also fit into the narrative of an impending prolonged rule, by subterfuge at least to begin with, by the Army. The extension comes even as former Pakistani Generals have been cautioning about the dangers that lurk. In a recent such example quoted by Dawn, at the two-day ‘Pakistan Governance Forum 2023’ organized by the Planning Ministry, Inaamul Haq, a retired general, cautioned that the military should be careful about two things – martial law takeover, which he said led to distortions in political affairs, such as holding guided elections and the creation of favourable parties, and extensions of the tenure of Army Chiefs and senior officers. Haq explained, “When they seek extensions, they play to the political tune, at least up to the time the summary is signed”.
While the Army seems to be busy plotting the surreptitious but complete takeover of the country, a region that it occupies and controls with an iron fist – Pakistan-administered J&K – is in turmoil. Just a few months ago, in January, weeks of anger over food shortages and runaway inflation had snowballed into massive anti-government demonstrations across the region. Now, Gilgit-Baltistan has been dealing with a tense situation for two weeks after two clerics from different schools of thought made insensitive remarks over the past few days, hurting the feelings of their respective communities. The situation turned tense on 1 September when demonstrations were held in Gilgit city and surrounding areas on the call of the Anjuman-i-Imamia, an outfit that aims to defend and promote the Shia ideology, hours after prominent cleric Maulana Qazi Nisar Ahmed allegedly made derogatory remarks during a protest in Gilgit. The protesters were demanding action against the cleric. Talking to Dawn, an official said that a case had been registered against Maulana Qazi Nisar Ahmed at the city police station in Gilgit, while a case against another cleric, Agha Baqir Al-Hussaini, who in August had allegedly used controversial language during a speech in Skardu, had already been registered there.
Unrest spread in the region after protesters in Chilas in Diamer blocked the Karakoram Highway and the Babusar Pass road for three days, demanding Agha Baqir’s arrest. Soon, demonstrations also engulfed the regions of Astore and Gilgit and were only called off after the case against Agha Baqir was registered. However, the action did not go down well with Baqir’s supporters, and a shutter-down and wheel-jam strike was observed in Skardu, with the protesters also blocking the Juglot-Skardu Road and other thoroughfares on 25 August. The government suspended two police personnel and a schoolteacher on allegations of sharing sectarian posts on social media, and at least 12 persons were detained for posting controversial posts. Mobile internet service has been suspended across the region by the authorities till further orders. Aaj News quoted Home Minister Shams Lone as saying on 3 September that the Gilgit-Baltistan government had initiated talks with the protesting sides in an attempt to restore calm in the mountainous region. Loon said, “We are in talks with amaideen (religious elders). They have given us assurances and we have urged them to promote peace messages in sermons”.
Dawn reported that according to a statement issued by Gilgit-Baltistan’s information department on 1 September, a meeting chaired by Chief Minister Gulbar Khan had reviewed the security situation in the region. The meeting — attended by ministers Shams Lone, Sohail Abbas and Rehmat Khaliq, the chief secretary, interior secretary, police chief and officials of intelligence agencies — decided that the situation was so grim that the Army would need to be called in to ensure protection of people’s lives and their property. It decided that the Pakistani Rangers, Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts, and Frontier Corps personnel would be deployed in major cities. Subsequently, on 4 September, Gulbar Khan said at a press conference that the strife and resulting uncertainty had seriously affected the region economically, especially the segments linked to tourism, small traders, and transporters. He informed that the government had invited clerics from across Pakistan to settle the controversial issue that had caused sectarian tensions in the region for the past weeks. “We hope the religious scholars…will settle the issue in consultation with local religious leaders from both sects; we are hopeful”, Khan said.
An editorial in Dawn on 5 September contended that the Pakistan government’s bulldozing of the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023 through parliament had breathed new life into sectarian discourses that had largely been dormant. As likely to be true as that may be, the seriousness of the situation in Gilgit-Baltistan, which is spreading into other parts of Pakistan-administered J&K, is not merely sectarian as is largely being made out to be. As the Dawn editorial aptly surmised, communal differences may only be a trigger for the protests as there are several underlying factors that have fueled disaffection. Primary among them are the denial of a clear identity, unbridled economic exploitation, and rampant violation of even basic human rights.
The situation in Gilgit-Baltistan has turned so volatile that the United Kingdom (UK) was constrained to join Canada and the United States (US) in advising its citizens to avoid visiting the region. The US Embassy’s statement said that American citizens should exercise heightened caution in Gilgit-Baltistan due to the recent protests in Skardu and Diamer, and the potential for additional demonstrations, road closures, and associated disruptions to local mobile and internet networks in the region.
Guiding the way to where the soft underbelly for Pakistan lay, Dawn said that Gilgit-Baltistan’s Home Minister Lone, without giving any evidence, had termed the strife as part of a conspiracy against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Diamer-Bhasha Dam. For the Generals, though, the problem ran deeper. Once a dreaded activity that hardly anybody dared indulge in, it is now becoming commonplace in Pakistan, and in Pakistan-administered J&K, to publicly question and criticize the Army and its personnel. The slogans chanted by the protesters in Gilgit-Baltistan included sharp criticism of Pakistani authorities, and of General Asim Munir. The refrain “Asim Munir Murdabad” (down with Asim Munir) was heard often in videos posted on social media.
Equally scary for the Generals were the insinuations advocating reunion with India-administered J&K that were made at the protests. Some protesters said that if the administration could not keep the highway to Pakistan’s Punjab province open, then it could instead open the route to Kargil. Slogans of “Chalo Chalo Kargil Chalo” (Come, let us go to Kargil) reverberated.
General Munir’s attention ought to be on tackling the issues that he has been trained and nurtured to do, addressing the rampant insurgency being an example, but the priorities seem skewed – even as separatist voices were being raised in the sensitive Gilgit-Baltistan region, the General opted to woo businessmen on the strength of alms he had flown all across the Middle-East to seek.