Pakistan faces looming threat of army rule with its escalating political strife
The spectre of creeping army rule looms large as escalating political strife has pushed Pakistan close to anarchy. The spectacle of an enraged mob ransacking the top military commander’s fortified official residence in Lahore and attacking the army headquarters in Rawalpindi without any resistance, presented the image of a crumbling state. Similar attacks took place in other major cities.
It all started with the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan last week. He was dragged out of the Islamabad High Court by paramilitary forces where he had gone to seek bail in multiple cases filed against him. The manner in which Khan was arrested triggered an unprecedented public reaction. Violent protests broke out across the country, paralyzing life in all major cities. Military installations bore the brunt of the wrath of Khan’s supporters.
Curiously, there was no resistance from the security forces while the rampaging mob ransacked the top commander’s residence in a high security zone. The security guards seemed to have disappeared. Never before has the military faced such humiliation with symbols of their power vandalized with total impunity.
The military later justified its inaction by saying that it “showed patience and restraint and exercised extreme tolerance, not even caring about its reputation, in the larger interest of the country.” But this is no answer to questions regarding why security melted away in the face of a few hundred protesters.
Khan’s arrest appeared forthcoming for some time after he was implicated in scores of cases. But his confrontation with the military was the major factor in his detention. A day before his arrest, the military in a hard-hitting statement warned that his “highly irresponsible and baseless allegations” were “unacceptable.”
The events of the last few days have further demonstrated that the federal government is losing control.
It came as a blow to the government and the security establishment, when within 24 hours the Supreme Court declared Khan’s detention illegal and ordered his release. He has also been granted protective bail in all the cases he is facing. He is now protected by the court order for a few days but is still not out of trouble. Although he is out for now, the sword of disqualification from holding public office is hanging over his head. There is also the threat of the party being banned. Any such action will lead to the explosion of an already volatile situation. There is some sense of normalcy returning, but the situation is far from being under control.
In a massive crack down, thousands of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) supporters including all its senior leadership has now been arrested. The army is now deployed in Islamabad as well as in the two provincial capitals most affected by the violence after civilian law enforcement agencies failed to control the situation. Punitive action against arguably the country’s most popular party, escalated the confrontation, thereby deepening the polarisation.
The events of the last few days have further demonstrated that the federal government is losing control. The deployment of the army to maintain law and order has sucked the security establishment more deeply into the fray. With growing political instability, the role of the military is likely to increase. But it seems doubtful that with growing public sentiments against it, the military could bring stability. There is a danger that any military action could lead to a mass uprising.
There seems to be a complete breakdown of the system with the escalating clash between institutions. It’s an extremely perilous situation for a country facing multiple crises. Most worrisome is the looming collapse of the economy. With no agreement with the IMF in sight, the prospect of default is staring us in the face. Growing political instability will make it even more difficult for the government to deal with the fast-deteriorating economic situation.
The questionable legitimacy of the present dispensation has rendered the situation untenable. It’s not just the economy, but also the rising terrorist threat that has imperilled national security. Any army intervention could further aggravate the situation and push the country to civil strife.
The looming economic meltdown and worsening political crisis represents an existentialist threat to a nuclear armed country-- also one of the world’s biggest countries in terms of population. It’s a scary situation, and the only thing that can salvage it is if the warring sides come to the negotiating table and create a conducive atmosphere for fair and free elections.
Unfortunately, there is no sign of either side showing flexibility. There is no winner in this reckless power struggle, and the only loser will be the people.
- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain