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EFSAS Commentary

Religious extremists and the military establishment alike land telling body blows on Pakistani PM Imran Khan


Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has, for quite some time, been going through a difficult phase due to the litany of woes, mainly self-created, that has befallen him and the nation that he has been entrusted to lead by the country’s all powerful military establishment. This past week has been particularly humiliating for the smooth talking but highly ineffective leader. The fact that images of Khan kneeling before the rulers of Saudi Arabia, pleading yet again for money to ensure the survival of his State, was the least belittling of the humiliations that Khan was forced to endure tells a story in itself of how abjectly terrible Khan’s week has been. Other than immodestly soliciting money that he knows he would be in no position to return anytime in the foreseeable future, Khan spent the last few days succumbing dramatically and repeatedly to the pressure exerted on him by extremists of the banned religious group the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). He also had to spare time to confabulate with Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who firmly and decisively showed the faltering Prime Minister his lame place in the pecking order, and in the overall scheme of things in Pakistan.

Coming into this week, Imran Khan already had a lot to fret and agonize over. Pakistan’s economy, which has been in shambles ever since Khan assumed office, was displaying even further signs of distress. Even as Pakistan is starved of cash, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently made the conservative estimate that Pakistan’s “external financing requirement stands at USD 23.6 billion in 2021-22 and USD 28 billion in 2022-23”. Khan’s advisor on financial matters, Shaukat Tarin, last week left Washington without concluding talks with the IMF for the next tranche of USD 1 billion out of the $6 billion loan that had earlier been approved for Pakistan. Tarin, apparently, was peeved that “the (Pakistan) government was reluctant to take certain steps needed to reduce the ever-widening gap between revenues and expenditure”. The World Bank, meanwhile, included Pakistan in the top ten nations with the largest foreign debts. As per the State Bank of Pakistan, the government’s debt increased to Pakistani Rs 39.9 trillion, of which Rs 14.9 trillion was in the past three years of Imran Khan’s reign. If that was not enough, Pakistan’s current rate of inflation is around 9 per cent, amongst the highest in South Asia, and this is impacting heavily on the lives of the average Pakistani. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves, meanwhile, stood at a mere $17.6 billion in September, sufficient to cater for only 2.7 months of imports. The Pakistani rupee is also rapidly losing ground against the dollar, and is at historic low levels currently. To make matters worse, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) took the decision last week to retain Pakistan on its grey list for terrorism-related failings, and this is likely to make any economic recovery that much more difficult.  

Amidst economic ruin of such proportions, relations between Pakistan and the United States (US) have degenerated to their lowest ebb. The headaches that Pakistan has taken upon itself in Afghanistan would also be giving Imran Khan some sleepless nights. Equally, if not more, concerning for Khan would be the harsh reality that even relations with Pakistan’s closest ally, China, are, by the day, proving to be harder to manage and more complex to deal with. China is putting tremendous pressure on Imran Khan to improve the security situation in Pakistan, and the targeting and killing of Chinese nationals working on projects of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has emerged as a major irritant in relations. The CPEC, much touted by Pakistani leaders as the panacea of all of Pakistan’s woes, is itself running into rough weather. Of late, China has been stalling the CPEC for multiple reasons, including inadequate security for Chinese personnel in Pakistan and Pakistan’s inability to invest its share of funds in various projects. Pakistan, on its part, seeks to renegotiate the terms and conditions of power projects under the CPEC as costs to consumers rise.

Meanwhile, voices have begun to be raised within Pakistan against the exploitative nature of the CPEC. In a letter to Imran Khan earlier this month, the Pakistan Association of Large Steel Producers (PALSP) demanded a ban on duty-free Chinese steel imports. Pakistan is contractually bound to use only Chinese products on various CPEC projects, resulting in the duty-free import of hundreds of thousands of tons of steel bars, cement, construction materials and prefabricated housing materials. The PALSP pointed out that “It is high time for our decision-makers to realize the situation and promote the domestic industry, which is the backbone of the country’s economy. If we continue to rely on imports, this will result in the capture of our entire market by foreign entrants, and above all, it will immensely increase the burden on the balance of payment position”. The balance of trade between Pakistan and China is already heavily skewed in favour of China. According to official Chinese data, trade between Pakistan and China in the first half of 2020-21 totaled $12.56 billion, of which Pakistan’s exports to China were a mere $1.735 billion. The fact that the debt that Pakistan owes to China has risen sharply from 9 per cent of its total debt in 2013 to 28 per cent currently, and that this is only likely to gallop to much higher levels in coming times, gives an indication of the scale of the problems in the Pakistan-China relationship that lies ahead.

If such a wide range of problems and worries were giving Imran Khan sleepless nights, his faltering relations with the Pakistani military establishment would have been giving him scary, horrible nightmares. This is quite understandable, given that Khan’s continuation as Prime Minister is dependant as much upon cordiality of ties with the establishment as it is upon Khan demonstrating his subservience to the Generals. The Prime Minister would not have taken too long to realize that the bravado that he displayed in stalling the replacement of the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) earlier this month was foolhardy and would have unpalatable consequences for him. General Bajwa, when he announced the appointment of Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum as the new ISI chief to replace Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed on 8 October, expected Imran Khan to follow suit, especially as the Army Chief had discussed the change on several previous occasions with the PM. Khan, however, was reluctant to replace Hameed because he believed that his political future depended on Hameed being in the hot seat when the next general elections came around in a couple of years’ time. Over the last five years Hameed, first as the number two man in the ISI and later as its chief, had apparently been instrumental in bringing Imran Khan to power, and in keeping him ensconced there. Khan had been banking on Hameed to similarly fix the next elections in his favour, without which he viewed his political prospects as being dim.

Jittery over how the future would pan out for him without Hameed’s backing, Khan, at least momentarily, lost sight of who exactly it was that held the reins in Pakistan. Khan delayed issuing the formal order transferring Hameed to Peshawar, and as he entered this past week the increasingly more businesslike and firm tone of the establishment meant that he had only one choice – to do what General Bajwa wanted. The loss of face and self respect that doing so would entail was what ought to have been giving Imran Khan the nightmares. As could have been anticipated, Khan succumbed and on 26 October issued the order appointing Anjum as the next ISI chief and shifting Hameed to Peshawar. As author and commentator Zahid Hussain had summarized in his article titled ‘System’s widening cracks’ in the Pakistani daily Dawn, “The reported clash between the prime minister and the security leadership over the appointment of the ISI chief is symptomatic of the widening gap between the two. It’s obvious that the prime minister chose the wrong issue for asserting his authority. His reported insistence on retaining the outgoing spymaster raised questions about possible political motives”. An editorial in the Dawn made another interesting observation. It noted that “In normally functioning democracies, the discussion on the appointments in intelligence agencies revolves around the professionalism of the officers tasked with the responsibility and the challenges that lie ahead for them. In Pakistan, sadly the debate is focused on the political impact of such appointments and how the new person would approach these aspects which have over the years become part and parcel of intelligence work”.

Unfortunately for Khan, even the ignominy of being forced to submit to the authority of the Army Chief in full public view did not prove enough to bring about an end to the nightmares. In the period between the Army’s announcement of the new ISI chief and the much delayed formal appointment order from the PM, another major problem in the form of the TLP raised its menacing head. The linkages between the TLP and the military establishment have been touched upon in earlier EFSAS commentaries, and they were commented upon recently by Shamil Shams of DW Asia, who wrote that “The military wants to create more pressure on Imran Khan — Imran Khan’s government — through these groups because historically we have seen that the military has used these groups against civilian governments as it did against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif”. Last week, the TLP launched a massive protest march to the capital Islamabad, demanding inter alia the release of its incarcerated 27-year-old chief, Saad Hussain Rizvi, and the expulsion of the French Ambassador from Islamabad as promised by the government in a past agreement.

Primarily focused on the issue of blasphemy, the TLP, which had been declared a terrorist organization earlier this year and is proscribed, has paralyzed Pakistan several times in the last few years by resorting to countrywide protest demonstrations. As the Dawn put it, “The TLP’s ability to paralyse cities and bring life to a grinding halt is well known. It is also well known that the group has been indulged, emboldened and then struck down by various powers. While this makes for a multifaceted problem, the government’s mishandling of the TLP has been a constant source of concern”. This mishandling was yet again in full view when four days into the TLP’s present march to Islamabad, during which time two policemen and several TLP protestors had been killed in violent clashes, Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed announced on 24 October that the Pakistan government had released more than 350 detained activists of the TLP, and that cases against other TLP members would be withdrawn. He added that the government would also work on a plan to release Saad Rizvi, and place the matter of relations with France before the country’s parliament. In return, all the TLP agreed to was to halt their march for two days. This inexplicably weak and knee-jerk reaction of the Imran Khan government generated considerable outrage in Pakistan, and the word “surrender” figured repeatedly in the public discourse. Even Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed felt constrained to use the word when he bizarrely contended that “Perhaps the people will say that the State has surrendered. But it is not the job of the State to use the stick”.

Describing the capitulation by the government as “despicable”, Zahid Hussain, in another article titled ‘State of surrender’, contended that “It couldn’t get more shameful than this, with the government surrendering its right to use force to maintain law and order and protect the lives of citizens. These pronouncements by the interior minister raise questions about the State’s resolve to fight all manner of violent extremism and terrorism. In fact, the government has shamelessly accepted the use of violence by a proscribed organization in pursuance of the latter’s illegal demands… The shock and dismay expressed by the Punjab Police over the administration’s capitulation to the militants has not come as a surprise. Nothing could be more demoralising for the law-enforcement agency which has suffered loss of lives while dealing with the violent zealots than the government’s decision to release those held responsible for the death of police officials”. Hussain highlighted the damage that the government’s weak-kneed approach was doing to the country, and expressed serious concern over Imran Khan’s alarming shift to the extreme right. He wrote, “The government’s policy of appeasement has hugely empowered the group which represents rising Barelvi militancy in the country. Now it has turned into a formidable religiously inspired political force threatening to tear apart the social fabric of this country. Equally worrying are the Imran Khan government’s own right-wing policies that are fuelling bigotry. There seems to be little difference between the TLP’s religious extremism and the PTI government’s policy of encouraging religiosity. It is certainly cause for serious concern. Not surprisingly, the country faces a more violent form of zealotry… The PTI government’s policy of appeasement has increased the terrorist threat to the country. Surrendering to terrorist groups will have very serious consequences for the country’s security and stability”.

These consequences are already on display. Emboldened by the government’s spinelessness, TLP leaders seem to have upped their demands to include the complete severing of diplomatic relations with France. The TLP has also resumed its protests march, and the death toll in the ensuing violence at the time of writing had risen to 18 – 7 policemen and 11 TLP members. In yet another change of direction, the government appears to have hardened its stand on the protesters. Pakistan's National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf yesterday accused the TLP of “crossing the red line and exhausting the State’s patience”. He added, “They have martyred policemen, destroyed public property, and continue to cause massive public disruption. Law will take its course for each one of them and terrorists will be treated like terrorists with no leniency”.

The TLP’s violent protests may well be more than merely a reminder to Imran Khan that he, just like the ISI chief Hameed, is subservient to General Bajwa, and not the other way around. It is also a warning to Khan to restrict himself strictly within the boundaries that have been set for him by the military establishment. The direction that the TLP agitation takes in the coming days may also provide telling clues on how General Bajwa views Imran Khan after the confrontation over the replacement of the ISI chief, and also how he intends to treat Khan in the days and months to come.

The tragedy of Pakistan is that while the powerful Bajwas and the Imran Khans indulge in narrow and self-serving turf wars, the danger of the country falling into the hands of religious extremists becomes increasingly more real with each inconsequential but highly damaging confrontation between the military and the political elite.