June 2023

Power struggle

Following the ouster of former premier Imran Khan, a new power struggle has been ignited in Pakistan.  Syed Badrul Ahsan  charts the volatile relationship between the country’s military and politicians over the last 75 years

Once again there is unrest in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s army is once more on the warpath. The difference is that this time it’s out to crush a political party and reassert its role in Pakistan’s politics. It’s not that the army has ever been out of the political landscape, but over the past few years it has tried to convey the false narrative that it has no linksto the political establishment, that it is indeed keen to see a democratic system take holdin Pakistan.

Now that former prime minister Imran Khan has openly challenged the military leaders in an attempt to curb their interference in matters of state, the army — or as one may term it ‘the empire’ — has struck back. It is not the first time that the army has taken such action — tearing Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party to pieces following the violent reaction of its supporters to his arrest on 9 May. |Indeed, more than half a century ago, the Pakistani army attacked the elected Awami League in what was then East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh, and pitilessly subjected as many as three million Bengalis to genocide.

In March 1971, the Pakistani army sought to punish Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by repudiating the results of the December 1970 election. The Bengali leader, who was poised to take charge as Pakistan’s first elected prime minister, was instead placed under arrest, flown a thousand miles from Dhaka to distant (West) Pakistan and put on trial before a military court. Mujib did not come back to his liberated Bangladesh until January 1972, a month after the Pakistani army had surrendered to a joint India-Bangladesh command in Dhaka.

One would have thought that the Pakistani army would, after the humiliation it went through in 1971, take a backseat in Islamabad and operate, finally, under the authority of an elected civilian government. That did not happen. Why it did not happen has much to do with the actions of the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who took over as president of a rump Pakistan following Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, sending soldiers into battle against nationalists in Balochistan in 1973. It was an operation conducted under General Tikka Khan, the same officer who had initiated the genocide in Bangladesh.

The Pakistani army thus found in the anti-Baloch operations an excellent opportunity to claw back to respectability. Bhutto adopted a policy of appeasing the soldiers, a policy which in the end resulted in his being overthrown in July 1977 by his handpicked chief of army.

Bangladesh genocide Bangladesh genocide
Bangladesh genocide: a stain on Pakistan’s history

Zia-ul- Haq.  The army was thus back in the driver’s seat, in all its arrogance. General Zia’s power grab was a foretaste ofa new dark age in Pakistan’s history in which, under him, the army went through a process of Islamisation that soon extended to the entire country. Zia banned political parties, had Bhutto hanged, repeatedly promised elections but then held onto power for eleven years, until his death in a mysterious plane crash in August 1988. Under Zia, Pakistan regressed to a medieval era.

the army — or as one may term it ‘the empire’ — has struck back

But Zia’s death did not spell an end to the influence of the army — although his successor General Aslam Baig did not seize power, he made sure that soldiers were pulling the strings from behind the scenes and was unwilling to allow Benazir Bhutto to assume office following General Zia’s death. In the end, Benazir Bhutto assumed office after agreeing to the military’s condition that she would have no role in defence policy or, in simple terms, would not interfere in the affairs of the army.

The vice-like grip of the army on Pakistan’s politics did not loosen in the post-Zia period; Benazir would assume office twice and was twice sacked. Much the same was the fate of Nawaz Sharif. In October 1999, as he attempted to dismiss General Pervez Musharraf from the position of chief of staff, Musharraf, then returning to Pakistan after a meeting in Colombo, literally came down from the sky and sent the Sharif government packing. The deposed prime minister was first jailed and then sent into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

Imran Khan is now a lonely figure. The army has cut him down to size

The history of the Pakistani army is, again, a whole lot more complex than simply turfing out civilian governments and seizing power; during the time of Pakistan’s first military ruler General Ayub Khan (who later promoted himself to field marshal), democratic politics were sabotaged by martial law decrees and the systematic arrest of respected politicians. Under the Elective Bodies Disqualification Ordinance (EBDO), decreed by the regime in 1959, an entire group of politicians was compelled to leave office. Ayub promulgated his constitution in 1962 and had an electoral college of what the regime called 80,000 Basic Democrats, who were empowered to elect the country’s president and the national and provincial assemblies.

Ayub Khan capitulated in the face of the mass uprising against him in March 1969. Ironically, though, he did not hand over power to the speaker of the national assembly as stipulated under the 1962 constitution, instead simply handing over power to the army chief, General Yahya Khan. The Yahya Khan regime presided over the country’s first general election before launching a genocide against Bengalis and eventually seeing the country break up through the emergence of Bangladesh.

Such is the disturbing history of the Pakistan army’s interference in politics —military leaders have often raised the profile of politicians and brought them into prominence before dumping them when they are no longer useful. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Imran Khan are cases in point. Khan is now on a crusade to force the army back into the barracks and for civilian rule to become the norm. He is unlikely to succeed. The army, under General Asim Munir, has, in a fit of rage, dismantled his party, arresting senior leaders of the PTI and exercising pressure on other party officials to leave the PTI. Imran Khan is now a lonely figure. The army has cut him down to size.

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan(r) and Gen Asim Munir (l)
Throwing down the gauntlet

The saying goes — half in jest and half in seriousness — that while every country needs an army, the Pakistan army needs a country. Pakistan has been the plaything of its army, which in the last seventy-five years has led the country to military disasters through its adventurism. In 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999 (the last through the unprovoked incursion into Kargil), the Pakistani army went on the attack against India and then retreated, licking its wounds. Meanwhile, in the past four decades, the army has been busy going after Baloch nationalists — thousands of Baloch people have been killed and thousands more have disappeared following army offensives.

Given such a sordid narrative, it is unlikely that the Pakistani army will now acknowledge the sovereignty of an elected government in Pakistan. There is not a single example throughout history. Every action by the military against Imran Khan is madeat army headquarters. The civilian thirteen-party coalition government now in office — placed there of course with the permission of the army — has little or no power.

The battle today is between Imran Khan and Asim Munir.  Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif does not feature in it.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a Bangladeshi journalist and political commentator based in London. He is the author of biographies of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the country’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad