Asia Defense & Security Diplomacy & International Relations Pakistan Relgion

The Trials of Pakistan’s New Security Approach

Pakistan’s political stalemate is built upon months of internal security threats and scrutiny from the international community over Prime Minister Khan’s courtship with Russia and his endorsement of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

On April 3, 2022, a no-confidence vote was held in Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly, where the opposition party garnered enough votes to oust Prime Minister Imran Khan on charges of corruption and inflation. While Speaker Qasim Suri rejected the vote and Prime Minister Khan dissolved parliament and called for early elections, the vote was ultimately realized. On April 9, 2022, the Supreme Court of Pakistan overturned the decision, declaring Khan’s moves as unconstitutional. Imran Khan is the first Pakistani Prime Minister to be removed from office through a no-confidence vote, joining 21 of his predecessors who were all unable to complete their five-year term as Prime Minister of Pakistan since the country’s founding in 1947.

While loyalists of Khan felt relief from a potentially humiliating move that is allegedly due to Khan’s recent anti-Western tirades, the now-larger opposition, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, charged the Prime Minister and his Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party with plunging the country into a constitutional crisis. The crisis was brought to an end in part due to Pakistan’s legal experts sitting on bar associations, the opposition parties, and the Supreme Court of Pakistan, displaying institutional integrity against Khan’s attempt to seize power. Now, Shehbaz Sharif, leader of Pakistan’s opposition and younger brother of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is expected to assume the role of Prime Minister of Pakistan.

This political stalemate is built upon months of internal security threats and scrutiny from the international community over Khan’s courtship with Russia and his endorsement of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

Pakistan as a nation and as a diaspora feels heat coming from every direction. But with this new political crisis bringing potential for more violence, Pakistan’s ability to navigate draws deep concern from domestic and international audiences alike.

At the core of the constitutional crisis is Khan’s allegations of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, making a statement to Pakistan’s former Ambassador to Washington, Asad Majeed Khan, that U.S.-Pakistan relations would not improve as long as Imran Khan sat as Prime Minister. In response to this comment on regime change, White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told reporters that there was “absolutely no truth in that allegation.” 

Khan’s anti-Western tirades are in line with his desire for an independent foreign policy. Yet his political ascent is being attributed to Pakistan’s military establishment, hence Khan’s reputation as the “selected, not elected” Prime Minister of Pakistan. This has left him out in the open, and now without the support of the public. Pakistan’s parliamentary system, similar to that of the U.K., allows for a simple majority in Parliament to mandate a transition of government on an occasion like the no-confidence vote. The Taliban victory in August 2021 followed by Khan’s public endorsement of Afghanistan as breaking the “shackles of slavery” resulted in not just Pakistan being alienated by the U.S., its top financial donor, but also the severing of supply lines of military equipment to Pakistan’s long-dependent army. Khan falling out of favor with the army—his most trusted beneficiary and supporter—is accompanied by a long trail of political violence, from secessionist movements and militant groups alike.

On the first Friday of March 2022, a bomb was detonated at a Shia mosque in the Peshawar region of Pakistan, killing 63 and wounding over 200. An ISIS-K affiliate later claimed responsibility for the March 4 Shia Mosque attack, leading many to reason that the motive was to create a climate of fear before the cricket game Pakistan was hosting against Australia the following day in Lahore. The day before, Pakistan’s military base in Kamra received 6 J-10C jets and during the first day of Russia’s invasion, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan became the first world leader to meet Putin since the Ukraine offensive. Many speclualed that Pakistan was aligning itself with Russia against its former War on Terror ally, the U.S, after its isolation following the Pakistan-backed Taliban takeover in August 2021. While the meeting was planned well in advance before Russia’s invasion, the optics showed the international community that Russia was not as isolated as the West expected.

The cricket game itself had over 4,000 security and military personnel, equipped with snipers, armored vehicles and air support to provide security over the sporting event given that in September 2021, New Zealand declined a visiting tour to Pakistan over security threats. For the same security concerns, cricket games have become a rare occasion in Pakistan, the cities of Karachi and Lahore go into lockdown during the day so children of the military can go to school without harm—a ruling military establishment with a full fleet of militant groups under its payroll, while a growing number of other militant groups have declared full-scale war against the Pakistani government.

In just the first month of 2022, Pakistan’s military saw dozens of casualties in its most volatile regions, Balochistan and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. These regions are also home to the largest separatist movement within Pakistan—the Baloch Liberation Front—and Pakistan’s most dangerous militant group, the Tehrik-e-Taliban. 

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s least developed, most impoverished and heavily militarized province of Balochistan is also the country’s largest and most resource-rich. Underneath the dry and arid desert landscape of Balochistan, are mineral and oil deposits worth trillions of dollars which the Pakistani government has claimed full control over since annexing Balochistan as part of Pakistan in 1948.

The Baloch people have faced 80 years of brutal state suppression at the hands of the Pakistani government—whether it be total control of their economy, nuclear tests on their territory without consent, or countless assassinations on Baloch tribal leaders. Today, the Baloch Liberation Army is the largest and most active separatist movement within Pakistan, intent on the full independence of Balochistan from Pakistan which operates from southeastern Iran. Baloch fighters are known to carry out attacks on Pakistani military bases in Balochistan, while seeking safe haven in the southwestern border of neighboring Iran.

On the night of January 25, 2022, dozens of militants ambushed a Pakistani paramilitary checkpoint in Kech, a little over a 100 miles from southwestern Pakistan’s border with Iran, killing 10 Pakistani security personnel. The Baloch Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack. Three days after the attack, Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency uncovered a network laundering millions of rupees from a supposed foreign intelligence agency, confirmed to be Iranian, in the backroom of a money exchange company in Karachi. On February 2, 2022, Baloch fighters again launched twin attacks on bases of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, resulting in days of back-and-forth skirmishes in Balochistan.

When Iran’s Interior Minister, Ahmad Vahidi, arrived in Islamabad for a day-long visit on February 16, he and other senior Iranian officials were received with a serious warning by Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Bajwa. Umer Karim, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the U.K., reported that “the message to that effect is that if Iran doesn’t stop providing a base for Baloch separatists and funding other proxies in the region, Pakistan will reply in kind.”

Saudi Arabia has profited off of Iran’s backing of Baloch rebels, as Pakistan now aligns closer with the Kingdom over mutual interest in preventing Iran from recruiting young Shia and Balochi men to fight for its interests, similar to the Iranian experience in Syria. However, Saudi Arabia’s pressure on Pakistan to better-confront Iran met its limit when Pakistan refused a proposal for joint special forces operations against the Houthis in Yemen. 

On the other end of Pakistan’s border is the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where the Pakistani branch of the Taliban has declared and carried out full-scale war with the Pakistani government. This has been ongoing since Pakistan decided to aid the U.S. War on Terror in 2001. Since then, over 88,000 civilians have been caught in crossfires, suicide bombings and other attacks waged by Tehrik-e-Taliban. 

Whether separatists with a near-century of grievances or militant fundamentalists who take it upon themselves to destabilize the government, Pakistan’s wounds are undeniably self-inflicted.

Earlier this year, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, Moeed Yusuf, released a new national security policywhich outlines the priorities of the country’s all-powerful military establishment. The document touches upon natural disasters, the pandemic, environmental concerns and non traditional security challenges, before addressing the issue of terrorism and India. With regards to India, the document acknowledges “the dangerous and repressive ideology gripping the collective conscience in our immediate neighborhood.” However, in regards to terrorism, which is defined broadly, the document professed a “zero tolerance policy” while emphasizing that Pakistan embraces Islam and ethnic diversity as core precepts of the nation.

However, this broad stroke of anti-terrorism and ethnoreligious unity in regards to the dual threat of separatist movements and terror groups, demonstrates that the Pakistani military establishment has failed to come to terms with the roots causes of the Balochistan Independence movement and the appeal of Tehrik-e-Taliban.

Only fifty years ago, the principle of shared religion failed to alleviate ethnic tensions in Bangladesh, causing the successful breakup of Bangladesh which ultimately proved to be a much more prosperous and developed state. Prime Minister Khan mentioned that “Bangladesh has surpassed us” in one of his speeches the week leading up to the no-confidence vote. The continuous failure of Pakistan’s elites to come to grips with the Bangladesh genocide and their military’s ongoing use of repressing minorities as domestic statecraft, has led to the cycle repeating in their second largest, most populous and resource-rich province of Balochistan. 

Unsurprisingly, Khan’s opponents have popularized the hashtag, #ImranNiazi, marking him as a traitor similar to how Pakistani General Niazi was following his signing of the surrender over the Bangladesh Liberation War on December 16, 1971. In response, Khan has praised Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and called members of the oppositions, “Mir Jafars” and “Mir Sadiqs,” likening his opponents to Mughal-era rulers who conspired with the British East India Company to conquer the Indian subcontinent. Rhetorical fire-fights aside, Khan has both profited and suffered from his reign as a personalist and populist leader crusading against elite interests.

Under the Presidency of Asif Ali Zardari from 2008 and 2013, a CIA contractor named Raymond Davis shot two Pakistanis in the back and was safely smuggled out of the country without punishment with the help of Zardari. Khan provided a break from this lineage of patrons to the destructive U.S.-Pakistani relationship from the War on Terror. Khan made clear in his platform as a leader that the U.S. never respected Pakistan’s sovereignty as a country considering not just the Raymond Davis affair, but the 2011 NATO attack on Pakistani soldiers in the Salala border post, 2012 Abbottabad raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout and the nearly 4,000 Pakistani civilians who have lost their lives due to U.S. drone strikes. Khan, during his tenure as Prime Minister, has prevented U.S. access over Pakistani airspace and expressed outrage over frozen assets in Afghanistan, which are desperately needed for humanitarian relief, but simply cannot be trusted by the U.S. in the hands of a Taliban-friendly Pakistani government.

However, Khan’s chivalry towards the oppressed and the war-torn also reached its limits in regards to the war in Yemen and persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, China. Pakistan’s ongoing and accelerated dependence on Chinese economic support has led to Khan’s silence on the Uyghurs. Similarly, Pakistan’s dependence on Saudi funds also resulted in his silence over the war in Yemen. Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, even blocked Pakistan’s attempts to join in an Islamic alliance with Malaysia and Turkey. 

Within his own domestic sphere, Khan promised identity cards and full citizenship to over two million ethnic Bengalis born on Pakistani soil as one of his campaign promises in 2018, who have been excluded from full citizenship and access to public services in Pakistan due to the Pakistani government’s grudge over their defeat in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Khan has never followed through on his promises of identification cards and citizenship to over two million Bengalis living in Pakistan, namely due to deep socially ingrained exclusion of Bengalis in Pakistan as a result of 1971 war-time propaganda indoctrinating Pakistan’s public that all Bengalis were collaborators with India.

On Bangladesh’s Independence Day on March 25, 2022, the Pakistani foreign minister sent Bangladesh “great felicitations,” while the Bangladesh Foreign Minister condemned Pakistan’s attempted genocide, displaying Pakistan’s loose grip on reality and failure to come to terms with its military’s dark legacy—which Pakistani politicians and diaspora members alike hesitate to address. On a recent Al Jazeera panel discussion on March 31, 2021, before the no-confidence vote, a former member of Khan’s PTI party, Faisal Vawda, strongly condemned Imran Khan’s mismanagement of the economy, but when asked about the role of the military, started with much praise and lip service regarding the “sacrifices” of the military. This dynamic of subservience to the military from any and all Pakistani political parties stands as not only a root cause of the current constitutional crisis, but an ongoing obstacle to a democracy largely contained by the military. 

The Pakistan Army’s grip over civilian government and politicians stems back to the 1950s, when the first President of Pakistan, Iskander Ali Mirza, abrogated the Constitution and declared martial law in order to prevent the Pakistan General Elections of 1959. Mirza was intent on preventing then-former Prime Minister Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy from contesting in elections with his Awami League party based in Dhaka, East Pakistan. Ironically, both Mirza and Suhrawardy were Bengali Muslims from East Pakistan. Still, the envy and political clashing between the two men, and Mirza’s ultimately unconstitutional move to upend civilian government similar to Imran Khan’s rejection of the no-confidence vote, laid a precedent for Pakistani politics in which the military or an incumbent leader claims the capacity to prevent the democratic transition of power whenever deemed necessary. Historian Ayesha Jalal mentions in her book, Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia, how this unique ability of Pakistan’s military to upend and control civilian democracy at will stems back to the fact that the Muslim League party only governed for a year after Partition and the fact that Pakistan’s territory is much smaller than India’s, allowing for a more manageable implementation of martial law.

In order to unseat both the Awami League and Muslim League, who were both well entrenched in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, Mirza made his own party called the Republican Party. However, unable to secure votes, on October 2nd, 1958, Mirza as first President of Pakistan invited the members of Pakistan’s ruling class to his home for a party. Meanwhile, the military under the orders of Chief Martial Law Administrator Ayub Khan, took over state institutions such as the government offices, radio stations and post offices. This was Pakistan’s first coup as simultaneously the Constituent Assembly was dissolved and to this day, Mirza’s idea of “controlled democracy” instituted in 1959 in order to deter a free and fair election challenge, lives on with the current Chief of the Pakistan Army, Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is in many ways the real effective head of state in Pakistan today.

Today, the military evidently pulls the strings of the politicians as Khan himself was considered to be groomed by the military as their show-boy. Indian media, less gracefully, called Khan a “boy king” of the military, whose tirades against Western countries are seen as hypocritical given that Pakistan receives overwhelming amounts of aid from the same Western countries. 

Khan himself garnered his political following from his popularity as a star cricket player. During his tenure as Prime Minister, he has made more of a reputation for leading the charge against Islamophobia similar to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Khan notably welcomed the United Nations General Assembly’s approval of Pakistan’s resolution this year, declaring March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia, in an international effort to address the rising tide of Islamophobia after 9/11 attacks. Khan’s pride for Islam during his performative speeches on Palestine, Kashmir and his promotion of a New Medina welfare state, has won him the hearts of many Muslims across the world—arguably to the extent that his more concerning flaws and hypocrisies are ignored and willfully neglected. However, similar to Erdogan, Khan’s reign is riddled with corruption and economic mismanagement. Neither Erdogan nor Khan were elected to condemn Islamophobia or earn the hearts and minds of the Muslim world through military proxy conflicts, yet their tenure has proven to do so more than anything else for better or worse.

In another public rally in early March, Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly addressed a letter from the U.S. and the E.U., urging Khan to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To this, Khan asked the crowd and the media whether “India was given the same letter,” which is a fair point given India’s seemingly productive courting of both Russia and the U.S. since the invasion of Ukraine. Still, these diversions from Pakistan’s own policy as a head of state, were so concerning to the international community that the military establishment in the form of Bajwa later gave a statement condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine on April 2, 2022. 

However, the fact that the military is the central authority from which civilian government must receive validation from, gives little hope of proper reconciliation with the Baloch people or acknowledgement of the Bangladesh genocide. While these two moves seem peripheral in the grand scheme of Pakistan’s politics, they are foundational towards serving the root cause of actually consolidating Pakistan’s national security, economic prosperity, political sustenance and social stability. At this time, the military reigns supreme as the political vanguard and unchecked dispenser of state violence. 

Ultimately, if Balochistan comes closer towards independence and Tehrik-e-Taliban demonstrates substantial security threats to the Pakistani public, the viability of Pakistan as a post-Partition homeland for Muslims of South Asia will undeniably disintegrate to the more current and familiar political reality of a military-run quasi democratic regime that insists on abusing minorities and military and financial patronage to either the U.S., the IMF or China, to no end. 

Already, a six billion dollar loan from the IMF was blocked and later revived in the first week of April. Additionally, the political stalemate and constitutional crisis had bar associations and other respected bodies of Pakistan’s judiciary breathing hope into the situation by strongly condemning Khan’s dissolution of Parliament and rejection of the no-confidence vote. At the same time, some elements within the judiciary were sympathetic to Khan and found the opposition’s desire to oust him following evidence of U.S.-sponsored regime change unacceptable, humiliating and infringing on the internal affairs of Pakistan. Ultimately, the cry of a foreign conspiracy was seen as a last resort attempt of Khan clinging to power, potentially damaging the democratic institutions of Pakistan.

Following Khan’s ousting from office, another Al Jazeera panel discussion addressed the question of the popularity of the U.S. conspiracy allegation which Khan pushed until his last day in office. One commentator, Ayesha Siddiqa, Senior Fellow in the Department of War Studies in King’s College London, said Khan pushing this conspiracy had two effects. First, this increased Khan’s popularity among the people and second, the U.S.-sponsored regime change conspiracy allegations increased popularity among first and second tier officers. Another commentator, former Pakistani politician and writer, Farhana Ispahani, drew attention to the abject economic failures in Pakistan during Khan’s reign. Ispahani mentioned how outside of the capital city of Islamabad, in places like Karachi and Sindh, the cost of living rose to unprecedented levels as inflation rose from 11% to 15.1% within just the course of Khan’s tenure in office.

Interestingly enough, the mixture of Imran’s visit to Russia, a targeted attack on Shias, a rise in Baloch separatist maneuvers and increasing imports of military hardware from China and Russia as the 10th largest arms importer, show signs of instability, geopolitical self-emolument and impending military conflict with India. On February 28, a Pakistan source claimed to have destroyed Indian jets, while another former Soviet-Afghan war veteran claimed that Pakistan was preparing for a drill made by 148 Indian jets. One thing opposition leaders and Imran Khan loyalists agree on was that Khan demonstrated remarkable and unflinching leadership with regards to Kashmir.

While these sources are constantly subject to scrutiny, the towering chaos and path to reconciliation ahead for Pakistan seems arduous, to say the least. 

The fate of Pakistan’s democracy, security and sustenance as a state are of economic, military and now imminent political importance. While to some, the judiciary has saved the country from laying bad precedent for future personalist and populist leaders entertaining demagoguery and autocracy, others within Pakistani society claim that Khan was a hero who exposed the relentless backdoor corruption led by senior bureaucrats. Only time will tell whether this democratic transition in the form of a no-confidence vote will truly benefit not just the political and social environment of Pakistan, but the deteriorating security situation amid proxy conflicts with Iran-backed Baloch fighters, internal war with Tehrik-e-Taliban and containment of Indian aggression call for political consolidation sooner rather than later.

Spectators draw caution that Imran Khan will return in the next elections, building his reputation in the meantime as political martyr, while others write him off as an autocrat and demagogue that pressed for unconstitutional holds on power. Whether his insistence of a U.S.-sponsored coup is taken by the Pakistani people, despite its clear lacking of proof and likelihood of being blown out of proportion as a rallying point for Khan’s supporters and grip on power, this allegation will add shattered foreign relations with its top aid donor to the list of grievances facing Pakistan.

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