Imran Khan, Pakistan’s 22nd prime minister, may turn out to be the second in the country’s history to complete at least one full term. The first prime minister to do so was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto(1972-77). Although the grapevine in the capital city, Islamabad, remains active with whispers foretelling the early end of Khan’s regime, a forced exit in the manner of his predecessors, who had lost the favor of the military, does not look likely. There is also talk of early elections, the possibility of which cannot be ruled out either.Whatever the future holds, it will not be about political forces contesting each other independently or any semblance of a democratic process. Instead, the politically powerful military will carve out an option that is convenient for it institutionally and suits its long-term interests.

Why Should Khan Go?

A popular adage in Pakistan is that the country’s prime ministers run the government with the help of the three As Army, Allah, and America. Over the years, this popular saying has turned into a complex equation signifying power relationships that run the state. The army, which is the centerpiece of this three-part algorithm, needs a government that does not challenge the centrality of the military in power politics; can successfully manage negotiations with global powers to keep Pakistan relevant, and has the ability to maintain the military’s legitimacy domestically by ensuring that the competition with other politico-economic competitors doesn’t boil to an unmanageable conflict. The second of the three As, “Allah” is not just about religion but retaining the state’s basic ethos, which is built upon religion, and also a symbol of domestic relevance. “America,” on the other hand, is no longer just about the theUnited States but includes dominant global powers as a whole, with a special emphasis on the West. A government’s inability to keep the equation balanced makes it unpopular and, hence, dispensable. Keeping the balance between the three elements is a herculean task and almost impossible. This is why Pakistani governments have often lacked political stability from the outset. The Khan government will probably complete its term, currently set to run through 2023, even though it does not look to be in a strong position. Khan has mounting problems domestically and an inability to confidently engage with international players. UnderPakistan’s hybrid rule, the military has the power to make critical decisions on foreign and domestic policies; however, the civilian government is expected to take responsibility for those decisions and ensure their success – something that has not been happening. The national security advisor’s faux pas seeming to threaten the United States by talking about Islamabad’s other options is one example. Domestically, opposition parties have begun to grow restless and have increased their own efforts to make connections with the army. The chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto, for example, is keen to offer himself to the army chief as a better alternative to Khan. As Khan’s third year in office passes, his popular position looks less comfortable (to be fair, all political leaders in Pakistan start to look less comfortable after two years in office). While Khan has always been unpopular with the more liberal elements of Pakistani society, his reputation has been eroded further due to his political position, which includes favoring the Taliban and allowing the mistreatment of the media. His slipups, such as suggesting that Japan and Germany have shared borders or indulging in victim-blaming in rape cases, have dented his image even further among educated Pakistanis. In the aftermath of the outbreak of COVID-19, however, Khan’spopularity seems questionable even among other social groups and socioeconomic classes, which are burdened by the rising cost of living and poor economic conditions. The Khan government has tried everything, including fabricating financial data, to claim economic recovery when the opposite is reality. According to Khurram Hussain, a prominent Pakistani columnist on economic affairs, the government’s data may show economic activity, but it suffers from serious distributive problems as the working classes were not the key beneficiaries during the pandemic. A non-performing economy also makes the military, which is dependent upon state resources, nervous. After all, military modernization, personnel costs, and the military’s business empire all require some level of financial health. It is, however, important to note that there has not been a demonstrable direct link between the dismissal of Pakistani governments and the health of Pakistan’seconomy. Any link that we find is indirect. For instance, from 1985to 2018 six out of 12 prime ministers were dismissed on allegations of corruption, which is bad for the economy, but not necessarily the cause of all financial issues.Thus far, the military establishment has not yet begun to popularize the corruption narrative in reference to the Khan government. Were it to do so, that would certainly be one of the clear signs that Rawalpindi is preparing to get rid of Khan. One consideration for the military may be Khan’s continued popularity as a cleaner politician, especially among the diaspora, who are an important source of financing to the state. The $29 billion in foreign remittances and investment in Khan’s Naya Pakistan last fiscal year could be a possible lifesaver. In any case, there is little evidence that Khan is not still the military’s popular choice, one which they want to use to bring systemic changes. Still, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Cuba, Kamran Shafi, believes that Khan’s “shit show” will be over soon as the generals realize that he is more of a burden than an asset. After General Pervez Musharraf’s judiciary crisis, Khan’s tenure has marked the first time that the man on the street looked at Pakistan’s military accusingly. The army chief was called names during a rally organized by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in Punjab, which is a hub for both Nawaz Sharif and the military. Former Prime Minister Sharif made a speech in November 2020 naming Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and the head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt. General Faiz Hameed, responsible for the military’s political intervention to secure Khan’selection. For a while, especially after Sharif’s fierce rhetoric, it seemed as if a popular public movement against Khan was in the offing. The political excitement coincided with a weak coalition among the political opposition, which came together under the umbrella of the Pakistan Democratic Movement in September 2020. Sharif’sspeech, however, weakened the coalition as other parties were less confident about directly confronting the generals. Moreover, despite succeeding in generating excitement among the general public, the PML-N could not sustain the momentum of its movement against the senior-most generals. For a short while, as the PML-N leadership publicly pointed the finger at the army and intelligence chiefs, smaller provinces looked at the largest province, Punjab, which is the hub of national power, as a harbinger of potentially revolutionary change. At this juncture, the party and its leadership look less aggressive and more thoughtful in how it presents itself – not as an enemy of the military, but merely challenging a select few generals at the top. The idea is to find a way to divide the army internally and lobby some generals, who (it is assumed) may be unhappy with Bajwa’sterm extension, or suspect that the army chief may vie for further prolongation of his tenure or select Hameed, the ISI chief, as his successor. The hope is to lure some of the generals with the idea that the PML-N could make a difference in their careers. In turn, Khan’s continued relevance is partly due to his importance for the career of the ISI chief, who could be made the next army chief. Even Bajwa continues to keep an eye on the prime minister from the perspective of his own future. Bajwa will also want to ensure that Khan supports his pick for a successor, even if the choice is not Hameed but instead the current commander of the XICorps, stationed in Peshawar, Lt. General Nauman Mehmood, who is believed to have made good contacts with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leadership, or some other senior corps commander. The choice of the next army chief is a matter that surpasses all other issues, including the military’s goal of cleaning the political system of older parties and their leadership. The problem of civilian rivals for power has begun to bother the armed forces, especially after the passing of the 18th amendment to the constitution in 2008, which gave financial autonomy to the provinces. This particular amendment reduced the federal government’s financial capacity to endlessly cater to military demands. Former Finance Minister Ishaq Dar claims that the army was annoyed with the PML-N because it couldn’t provide more money, as funds were allocated to the provincial government rather than Islamabad. The 18th amendment was viewed by the army as an attempt by both the PPP and the PML-N to minimize the military’s influence and check its demands for national resources. Therefore, in 2018the army assisted Khan and his PTI in turning the tables on its opponents. According to the U.S.-based amateur military historian, Hamid Hussain, who has a keen eye on Pakistan, Khan’s government was brought in with the intention that it will serve at least two terms to establish better control. Historically, the army has been instrumental in assisting newer parties to power.While seeking to dethrone the PTI, the PML-N seems to have renewed its message to the army that it is not keen to choke the institution financially. Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and political heir, Maryam Nawaz, reminded the generals while making a speech during the recently held elections in Pakistani-administered Kashmir (known as Azad Jammu Kashmir) of how her father had increased the military’s pay. It would still be a challenge for the sharifs to outcompete Khan, who has willingly fed the armed forces even during troubled times like the COVID-19 pandemic. The military continued to get additional grants during the recent economic crunch, including an additional 15 percent increase in pay. Furthermore, Khan’s three years in power so far were instrumental in establishing the military’s most favored principle of acquiring an equal role in governing the state without a direct takeover. Under Khan and the PTI, the country witnessed a horizontal expansion of military power.The more noteworthy development, however, pertains to making governance with military involvement institutionally strategic and top-heavy. While Khan inherited the National Security Committee, in which all four-star generals are equal partners with top civilian players, the PTI government expanded the military’s role further by putting the army chief or serving or retired military commanders, as partners in every critical institution. It is hard to find a single significant public organization that is not tended by serving or retired military personnel. During the recent Tokyo Olympics, dissident Twitterati delighting in making fun of the fact that the country’s sports board has been headed for the last 15years by an army brigadier with no accomplishments to show for it.Since coming to power, Khan has given the army chief a role in economic decision-making by making him a member of theNational Development Council. In 2020, the Khan government established the National Coordination Committee (NCC) for COVID-19, again including prominent military figures. Later, the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) announced the setting up of a national Command and Operation Center (NCOC) placed under the command of the commander of the Army Air Defense Command. national Locust Control Center (NLCC) was established under the command of the army’s engineer-in-chief.In July 2021, a National Intelligence Coordination Committee(NICC) was created for the ISI to oversee the intelligence activities of all civilian and military intel organizations. Intelligencecoordination is a concept that first came up in 2016, with the idea of setting up a Joint Intelligence Directorate (JID) at the NationalCounter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) under the civilian police service. Police officers who served in NACTA say that JID could not take off in large part due to resistance by the army’s intelligence agencies. Although the ISI is a member of NACTA’s advisory board, it wanted to dominate intelligence coordination, which was attained by establishing the NICC.The PTI government has helped the military pave the way for developing a national strategic decision-making structure. The streamlining of the National Security Division (NSD), which will be discussed in the following section, is meant to carve out a national security policymaking structure to suit the military’s tastes. 

Disempowering the Parliament: The Case of the DCC

Khan’s willingness to play along with the military helped the institution shift its focus from the control of the government to a style of governance that would allow it to stay away from direct intervention without having to ever return to the proverbial barracks. The idea, which started during the tenure of Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani (2007-2013), aimed to create a favorable power equilibrium that the political opposition would not be able to disturb unless they came riding into power on the back of a popular political rebellion – which is not likely. A process of disempowering the National Assembly, Pakistan’sparliament, was started earlier because of the military’s manipulation and the lack of political parties able to checkmate the armed forces institutionally. The problem also lies with the nature of political parties, which Alfred Stepan would probably describe as having a “Sultans” nature. The concentration of power at the top and a weak political cadre force means a compromised ability to take a stand. This is obvious from some recent decisions, like the approval of the Finance Bill 2021, in which the two major military business networks were allowed tax exemptions. Currently, the PMI-N – which also voted in favor – does not even want to remind itself that the party initially taxed the Fauji Foundation and theArmy Welfare Trust in 1992. Focusing too much on dramatic moves like passing the 18thamendment, the PPP, PML-N, and other parties forgot to create institutional capacity to control the armed forces. This was obvious from the gradual weakening of the national security decision-making system that had been created during the 1970s by the Bhutto government. The Defense Committee of Cabinet (DCC), framed on the British model, empowered the parliament’s in national security decisions. Former Army Chief Mirza Aslam Beg’srecent’s book, “Compulsions of Power,” indicates the military’s discomfort with the DCC and its institutions; there has been a struggle since General Zia ul-Haq’s martial law to reverse the system in order to ensure equality of power between the military and civilian leadership. Musharraf introduced a system of strategic equivalence by forming the National Security Council. His predecessor, General Jahangir Karamat, resigned in 1998 when the thethen-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sharply challenged the army chief speaking about instituting the idea of the NSC. The late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif agreed in the Charter of Democracy signed in 2007 to revert to the DCC system. The PPP government elected in 2008 brought the DCC system back, but could not make it work. There were no noticeable DCC meetings held. The system was allowed to go formally defunct under the PML-N government in 2013. It was replaced by the Cabinet Committee for National Security without any debate in the parliament. Later the nomenclature was changed again to theNational Security Committee (NSC) and its role was also revised from advisory to decision-making. The PML-N’s Sartaj Aziz was the first national security adviser and architect of the plan. It was a significant move as it gave full membership to the military’s four-four-star generals. The National Security Division (NSD) was meant to assist the NSC. It was designed with a policy planning wing, comparable to the India’sNational Security Advisory Board, responsible for coordinating debate on the subject by various public and private think tanks for the benefit of the NSC. The task of streamlining the national security community was achieved under Khan’s government when the NSD brought all public sector think tanks under its control. After 2018, for instance, the Islamabad Policy Research Institute(IPRI) was taken out of the control of the Ministry of Communication and placed under the NSD. After 2013, there was a proliferation of private think tanks that were mostly controlled by or included retired military personnel. The new structure also weakened parliamentary control of national security, as the NSC does not deal with arms procurement. Aziz writes in his book “Between Dreams and Realities” that arms purchases were left out because of the limited capacity of the parliament to debate the matter. 

Civil-Military Conflict and National Security Decision-making

That the NSC system was forced on the government is obvious from two facts. First, despite underwriting the formation of the NSC, the Sharif government did not exhibit faith in the system. In his almost four years in office, Sharif only called nine NSC meetings, and the ones he did hold eventually became controversial with the story of the “Dawn leaks.” His successor, PML-N Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, by contrast, held 14meetings in less than a year. Imran Khan’s record of seven meetings to date is not impressive either. The political elite is not geared toward institutionalizing its relationship with the military, nor do army chiefs invest in strengthening institutional dialogue. According to data compiled by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), a private think tank, Nawaz Sharif held119 private meetings with the army chief, for which the minister of defense was present in 34 meetings and the NSA in 33. Khan, on the other hand, held 86 meetings with the army chief from 2018-2020 out of which the defense minister was present in only 16. Interestingly, the minister of defense attended five out of nine NSC meetings held by Sharif, seven out of 14 held by Abbasi, and six out of seven held by Khan. Second, the NSC system seems to be an artificial structure imposed from the top to subdue the parliament’s organic struggle to build institutional capacity. In 2008, a Parliamentary Committee on National Security was formed that until 2013 held 84 meetings. From 2008 to 2017-18, two separate standing committees on defense – in the Senate and National Assembly – were actively engaged and held 25 and 26 meetings, respectively. The matters debated during the meetings included important issues such as disclosure of agreements with the United States, the operation of the cantonment boards, the forced eviction of people in Balochistan and tribal areas, and incorrect placement of MilitaryLand & Cantonment service under a serving general. Khan’s parliament, however, seems to have taken a backseat on national security issues. Despite the presence of members from most political parties, the leaders and membership of these various committees lack the gravitas needed to challenge the military. then, which operates more closely with the army chief, has emerged as a bridge between the prime minister’s office and the military, but it also seems to have become more prominent than the NSC. Thanks to his willingness to let the military increase its clout with minimal resistance, Imran Khan’s relationship with the generals remains stable. From the military’s perspective, Khan’s tenure is necessary to shape the political system until the correct balance, as conceived by the army, is achieved. Predicting Pakistan’s political future in the midst of mounting external and internal chaos is tricky. But it can definitely be concluded that chaos and domestic pressure alone will not deter the army from its continued support of Khan. Some altering of the political balance may not be ruled out, but the ultimate criterion is the extent to which any such change legitimizes the power of the armed forces.