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EFSAS Commentary

Counterintuitive happenings in Pakistan suggest a political scenario over which nobody seems to have full control


Over the past week, three clear developments in and relating to Pakistan have served to project the impression of a confused nation whose powerful Army Chief is attempting to carry out diplomacy and international negotiations in the United States (US) instead of focusing on the alarming deterioration of Pakistan’s internal security situation; a three-time former Prime Minister who has just been brought back to the country from exile by the same military establishment that had pushed him into exile in the United Kingdom (UK) a few years ago, is now speaking out openly and loudly against the military establishment; and the most popular politician in the country today is being forced to resort to reaching out to his supporters and seeking their votes in the forthcoming general elections in February 2024 through artificial intelligence (AI) mimicking his voice, as he serves time in prison under strict gag orders.

Media reports this past week said that Pakistan’s embattled former Prime Minister Imran Khan delivered a rousing speech to his supporters from behind bars, using AI to create a voice clone. Khan has been locked up since August after he was found guilty of corruption, and he is additionally accused of leaking classified documents, allegations the cricketer turned politician has repeatedly denied and says are intended to stop him from contesting February’s nationwide polls. The country’s media regulator banned television stations from broadcasting Khan’s speeches after his brief arrest in May sparked deadly riots, prompting the government to shut down the internet for three days. Legal proceedings against Khan have taken place behind closed doors. There has been no image of Khan in jail or in court shared with the public since his arrest in August.

In these circumstances, the use of AI proved to be an innovative method for Imran Khan to campaign for his party months ahead of the elections. His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party held an online rally on 17 December that lasted about seven hours, during which it released the roughly four-minute clip that used AI technology to mimic Khan’s voice. The audio was overlayed with old footage and photographs of Imran Khan. A caption on the video read: “AI voice of Imran Khan based on his notes for Jalsa (a rally) from jail”. The AI voice mimicking Khan urged his supporters to vote in the upcoming general elections. It continued, “My fellow Pakistanis, first, I would like to praise my social media team for this historic attempt. Perhaps you are wondering what my condition is in jail … My determination for real freedom is strong”. The voice added: “Our party is not allowed to hold public rallies … Our people are being kidnapped and families are being harassed”.

CNN reported that Khan’s virtual rally drew more than 1.4 million views on YouTube, and was viewed live by tens of thousands on other social media platforms. However, NetBlocks, an internet watchdog that monitors cyber security, said social media platforms were restricted by authorities in Pakistan for about seven hours on 17 December during the PTI’s virtual rally. Hence, just what impact the AI speech, and other similar innovations that Khan and his team may adopt in the days ahead, would have on an election over which the military establishment is expected to exercise a lot of control remains to be seen.

Just like Khan, another former blue-eyed boy of the military establishment who later fell foul with the Generals has, in yet another fresh twist of fate, been brought right back into the Pakistani political mainstream by the Army from an inglorious exile in London. Sharif was acquitted last week in the Al-Azizia Steel mill corruption case, and he has already been acquitted in the Avenfield graft case in which he was convicted in July 2018 and sentenced to ten years in jail. He also got relief in the Flagship corruption case. All these cases were believed then to have been filed and pursued at the instigation of the military. Nawaz Sharif had emerged as a major thorn in the flesh of the Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) after he began questioning not only the exploitative supremacy of the military establishment, but also the rationale behind their backing of terrorist attacks such as the ones in Mumbai in November 2008 that killed and injured hundreds of innocents. Having returned to Pakistan with the blessings of the military, the common expectation was that Sharif would tone down his attacks against the military establishment.

Sharif is presently doing exactly the opposite, but how far the military will allow him to go in this direction is moot. He is the only Pakistani politician to become Prime Minister of the coup-prone country a record three times. Reminding Pakistanis of this, Nawaz on 18 December said that in 1999, “I was Prime Minister in the morning and in the evening I was declared a hijacker. Similarly in 2017, I was ousted from power for not taking salary from my son”. Referring to PTI chief Imran Khan, he continued, “They (the military establishment) made this decision as they wanted to bring their selected man into power”. Earlier, in a televised address to the nation last week, Nawaz had accused the military establishment of the period from 2014 to 2017 of forcing senior judges to remove him from power. “They (the military establishment) visited the residences of senior judges and threatened them. They achieved the required court verdicts against me through coercion”, he said.

During a conversation with Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) ticket aspirants on 19 December, Nawaz, who is eying the post of Prime Minister for a record-bettering fourth time, again pointed out that he was ousted from power three times – in 1993, 1999 and 2017. He said, “Today where Pakistan has reached (in terms of the state of the economy) this is not done by India, the US or even Afghanistan. In fact, we shot ourselves in our own foot... they (the military establishment) imposed a selected government on this nation by rigging the 2018 polls that led to the sufferings of the people and downfall of the economy”. Nawaz pointedly lashed out at the flamboyant former ISI chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hamid for his role in ousting him from power in 2017. “A case has been opened in the Supreme Court against those (Faiz Hamid and others) who had said that if Nawaz came out of jail, their two-years of hard work would be wasted”, he said.

The 73-year-old Sharif also castigated the judges for legitimizing military dictators when he said, “The judges garland them (military dictators) and legitimize their rule when they break the Constitution. When it comes to a Prime Minister, the judges stamp his ouster. The judges also approve the act of dissolution of the parliament...why?”

Nawaz Sharif, among Pakistan’s front-line politicians, has historically been most inclined to bettering ties with India. He tried in 1999, but was ousted by General Parvez Mussharaf, and his 2015 start was similarly fated. His current statements convey an appreciation of India’s economic and scientific progress, particularly its successful moon mission. There does seem to be the suggestion in his statements that he believes Pakistan would be better served by more meaningful ties with India. It seems to have dawned on Sharif that neither a full term in power nor better relations with India are achievable through a junior position in the partnership with the military establishment.

The military, meanwhile, seems to be getting thickly involved in the foreign relations field, with Army Chief General Asim Munir visiting the US this past week and meeting government and military officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defence (retired) General Llyod J. Austin, Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, Deputy National Security Adviser Jonathan Finer and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Q. Brown, there. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistan military’s media wing, said that matters of bilateral interest, global and regional security issues, and ongoing conflicts were discussed during the meetings. It added that “Both sides agreed to continue engagement for exploring potential avenues of bilateral collaboration in pursuit of shared interests”.

The ISPR further said that during General Munir’s meetings with US defence officials, counter-terrorism cooperation and defence collaboration were identified as core areas of cooperation, adding that the leaders reiterated the intent to increase interaction and explore ways to expand the scope of mutually beneficial engagements. The Army Chief underscored the importance of “understanding each other’s perspectives on regional security issues and developments affecting strategic stability in South Asia”. He also “highlighted the importance of resolving the Kashmir issue”.

A US State Depart­m­ent spokesperson, when asked for comments on Blinken’s meeting with the Pakistan Army Chief, said that “Pakistan is an important partner, and we eng­age with a wide range of interlocutors within the Pakistani government. We look forward to continuing to partner with Pakistan on regional security and defence cooperation”. Pentagon Press Secretary Major General Pat Ryder informed that “Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III hosted Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir at the Pentagon today, where the two officials discussed recent regional security developments and potential areas for bilateral defense cooperation”.

Ayesha Siddiqa, Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, pointed out that “Unlike visits by earlier army chiefs, details about General Munir’s trip have remained hush-hush, which includes his meeting with scholars and lobbyists associated with think tanks. Perhaps the silence results from General Munir’s reluctance to give wind to speculations about a tour that is critical not just for him personally but also for his army and the country’s future. His critics say that the tour is meant to garner American support for delaying elections and manipulating the democratic process to greater advantage. Not that Pakistan’s political future was not discussed. In fact, sources in Washington said that Pakistan’s domestic politics and treatment of Imran Khan was raised but didn’t receive an encouraging response from the General”.

Siddiqa also opined that the aim of Munir’s US visit was to bolster military and financial ties. She wrote, “It ought to be noted that Munir visited the US capital not just as a service chief but a de facto martial law administrator, who is firmly in charge of Pakistan’s political future and economic direction. Not that one expects a major development regarding bilateral relations at the end of the tour, but if he manages to bring back some confidence in US-Pakistan ties in his parting goodie bag, it will add to his bargaining power and influence at home. But that ‘confidence’ will enter the scene only if Munir is able to build a rapport with Washington on some key issues”.

She continued, “While strategic talks were limited, the army chief got busy drawing the attention of American investors and Pakistani diaspora towards investment opportunities in Pakistan. Munir understands how essential his efforts in this area are given Pakistan’s current economic state—though aware that Islamabad has been working overnight on improving relations with China at the same time. But American goodwill is priceless as it will keep the money flowing, especially through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that has replaced the US’ direct rents to Pakistan. And so, Munir spoke about Pakistan’s dependence on trade relations with America”.

As the tussles between the multiple players in the race for power in Pakistan play out over the coming months, the direction the country will take into the future will hinge on which side prevails in the ongoing tugs of war.