Army's Purported Intervention in Pakistan's Politics

Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) reportedly reached out to the US Deputy Secretary of State last Friday to address the country’s current economic insecurity and ensure the early disbursement of a loan tranche by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Although bilateral exchanges at various levels are a routine exercise, the interaction became a point of deliberation domestically, inviting a political backlash from the lately overthrown political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). While the move fanned the debate assessing the constitutional scope for the COAS to play a role in the matter, it also bared the country’s economic situation across the board.

On Friday, the Foreign Office (FO) verified the telephonic conversation between COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. According to the official spokesperson Asim Iftikhar Ahmad, the FO was not cognizant of whether the officials had discussed the economy. Per the reports of Nikkei Asia, undisclosed sources revealed that the Pakistani Army Chief appealed to the Treasury Department and the White House to compel the IMF to expedite the process of providing Pakistan with about $1.2 billion. Islamabad is slated to accrue the amount following the resumption of IMF’s loan program. As a multibillion-dollar bailout package has been agreed upon at the staff level between Islamabad and the IMF, the agreement needs to be approved during a late-August meeting of the lender’s board.

However, the move was met with strong criticism, primarily by PTI. PTI labelled the action as beyond the Army’s role. The former prime minister Imran Khan, Chairman of PTI, has criticised that it is not the COAS’ job to handle the economic issue. He added that such an intervention signifies that the state is “getting weaker”.

While the military has long maintained to be apolitical, it sure is wary of the country’s economic predicament. Also, the lack of credibility of the current political stakeholders leaves Pakistan with fewer choices.

Though the current intervention by the Army is rightfully uncalled for, the institution has played an invaluable role in the past as well. It is to be noted that during the PTI era, when Pakistan wanted to trade crude oil under easier conditions and required prompt dollar dispersal due to diminishing reserves, the COAS interceded with Saudi Arabia. The help was considered a routine civil-military collaboration. The then prime minister Imran Khan did not look into the constitutional room for the army chief’s intervention but was instead appreciative of his assistance. Pakistan is an example of how an apolitical institution of the Army can be gradually pulled into the political arena, among other causes, because of the deficiencies in political institutions, drawing the military to become a significant factor in the process of decision making.

Then again, the National Security Policy (NSP) 2022 brought forward during Imran Khan’s administration further increased the space for such actions. In light of the NSP, the economic security of a state is the cornerstone of national security. Therefore, the policy makes room for such manoeuvrings to safeguard the economy if the situation demands it. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) can be taken as an example in this regard, where the country’s military has played a fundamental role in ensuring the smooth flow of the project.

On the flip side, as opined by Umer Farooq, “Pakistan military is in love with its image…as a saviour of the nation”. Though the constitution provides no room for the military in the political arena, the impression of the Army as an invincible power in the country consolidates the credibility of its political capacity. Besides, the institution draws global legitimacy based on the Pakistan Army’s role during the Cold War and the “Global War on Terror”.

Nevertheless, ISPR has repeatedly asserted that the Pakistan Army has “nothing to do with politics”. While the military has long maintained to be apolitical, it sure is wary of the country’s economic predicament. Also, the lack of credibility of the current political stakeholders leaves Pakistan with fewer choices.

The country’s political leaders must come at par with the Army’s nationalistic stance and refrain from giving in to their internal tug-of-war for the military to steer clear of politics and for the civilian government to sustain the sanctity of the armed forces. However, given the inter-party political dynamics, such a change does not seem to take place soon.

The recent overture reeks of the country’s desperate economic situation. Moreover, it is also reflective of the country’s domestic dynamics. Notwithstanding the speeding up of the IMF’s loan payout, how successful the telephonic exchange will be for Pakistan’s financial standing in the long run, is yet to be seen. On the other hand, economic stability is central to internal security, ensuring which remains the foremost concern for the country’s military. Apart from that, the Army does not seem interested in being saddled with the additional obligation of direct rule.

Fareha Iqtidar Khan

Fareha Iqtidar Khan is Associate Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is also Visiting Faculty at the International Islamic University, Islamabad.

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