Pakistan Protests over Imran Khan’s arrest have broken unquestioned myth of army supremacy FirstPost 11 May 2023 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


Pakistan: Protests over Imran Khan’s arrest have broken unquestioned myth of army supremacy FirstPost 11 May 2023

          The Pak army has ruled the country officially for over half its existence and from behind the throne for the balance. No government has ever had the freedom to function or take foreign policy decisions, mainly concerning India, Afghanistan, US and China, without approval from GHQ Rawalpindi. It was known that Islamabad was for photo-ops and Rawalpindi for decisions.  

Every major visitor to Islamabad also visited Rawalpindi while no army chief ever called on any dignitary, displaying its hold and power over decision-making. The army had projected itself as the saviour of Pakistan protecting it from a dreamed up Indian intent to break the nation into three or four pieces as also safeguarding it from terrorists.

It had been respected and looked upon despite its top brass being involved in corruption, land grabbing and interfering in politics. Never has a senior army officer been tried and jailed for corruption, despite their activities coming to light, while politicians have. The army was feared, respected and considered to be above all other institutions.  No politician, despite being jailed, ever accused the army of being biased and planning assassinations to retain control, until Imran entered the fray.

Imran, regarded as a national hero for bringing the world cup home, has earned the respect of the common Pakistani and is believed to be honest, despite piling of over 120 cases of corruption, blasphemy and inciting violence. His accusation of the army’s senior leadership toeing the US line to remove him from power, as also painting an anti-army scenario, including naming senior officers of attempted assassination, broke their carefully constructed narrative.

His arrest was the trigger which sparked the fire which had been simmering within the population, fuelled by Imran’s continuous accusations. The result was that the populace targeted mainly army institutions and not public property as is the global norm during agitations.

          Wanton destruction and looting of the corps commander’s residence in Lahore, breaking into the GHQ and ISI HQs in Rawalpindi as also entering army cantonments has, apart from breaking the myth of army supremacy, also displayed hatred and anger towards the institution. Public comments post the looting of the corps commander’s residence, displayed discontent at the opulence, especially at a time when the national public was starving.

Imran’s strategy was to place the army under civilian control by regaining power with public support rather than exploiting vote rigging as was the norm. This would give him the authority to bring the army leadership to heel and rule as per his own desires, ignoring advice of the generals. For this he was crafting the narrative that the army’s top leadership is biased, involved in illegal activities as also influenced by extraneous powers. He was steadily working to bring about a divide within the forces by winning over veterans and the middle and lower ranks. The fact that he succeeded was evident in the way army institutions were attacked. 

Imran’s arrest was stage managed to perfection. After his tirade against the generals, he could not be allowed to be scot-free. Post the failed attempt at his residence in Lahore, Zaman Park, where his supporters intervened, the army stayed away and let confidence grow that he is beyond reproach. This led to laxity in his security, which was exploited.

He was arrested from the court premises and not within the courthouse, which would have been illegal. The case under which he was arrested had involved investigation in Pak and the UK and for which there was enough proof for his detention. Shehbaz Sharif was aware of the impending action, hence delayed his arrival by a day. The resultant backlash of protests was expected but targeting only army institutions was not. Thus, cantonment gates and institutions within were not provided with additional security.

The targeting of military institutions was an insult to the army and has happened for the first time in Pakistan’s history. Imran has singlehandedly done what many of his political opponents have desired to do but lacked courage or were seeking returning to power. Will the army accept this insult or will it retaliate to regain the upper hand remains to be seen. Another burning question is whether this is Pakistan’s Arab Spring.

The uprising thus far is uncontrolled, un-channelized and spontaneous. It is a display of venting out frustrations caused by various economic factors coupled with unemployment, fuelled by the arrest of Imran. With no leader emerging nor anyone in the PTI with Imran’s charisma, it is unlikely to be Pakistan’s Arab Spring. Further, such protests, with none to add fuel or lead, tend to simmer down in a few days. It is likely that the army will initially stay in the background, wait for the protests to ebb prior to regaining initiative by arresting those responsible. 

The choices before the army are limited. Imposing martial law is unlikely as it would no longer be globally acceptable. The world is demanding that Pakistan maintain the rule of law. Further, China is dependent on the Pak army to ensure security of its investment and its people employed in the CPEC. It cannot be embarrassed any further. In such a scenario the army’s primary task would be to cut Imran to size. With him under arrest for a maximum of 14 days, which could be extended by invoking other cases, it has time to threaten and force him to accept his wrongdoings. Videos of him in situations of duress and accepting his crimes would be made to subsequently blackmail him. The game will be dirty but then for the ISI, dirty games is their expertise.

An alternative is to enhance tensions with India by breaking the ongoing ceasefire or instructing its operatives in Kashmir to launch a major attack, compelling Delhi to retaliate. This is a double-edged sword as Pak currently lacks capabilities to fight a major war or retaliate to Indian actions and handle internal turmoil simultaneously. If it suffers a setback, it is endgame for the army.

Thus far the Pak army has never let any internal issue impact its control over the nation. It has won all battles at home and lost all to India. Its battle against Imran has begun. Neither side can back down. If the army or the courts release Imran, he can never be challenged in the future and the army will have to be subservient to him. If protests die down due to leadership issues and lack of push by the PTI, the army will regain credence. If Imran is incarcerated for a prolonged duration, he will be out of political reckoning and the army will regain power.

However, the protests have displayed that the army is no longer the most respected and loved institution in Pakistan. Its power has diminished and every step it takes in the future would be closely watched. Pakistan has changed, how much is to be seen.