Rock Walk for Imran: The Tribune India
Imran Khan had a very different entry and rise in Pakistani politics from virtually all of his predecessors, ranging from Mohammed Jinnah to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. The planning of Imran Khan’s entry and rise in politics, however, was not carried out through a political party. It was facilitated by a former ISI leader, Lieutenant General Hamid Gul.
There are too many imponderables. Army takeovers and regime changes are not unheard of in Pakistan.
I met Hamid Gul personally in Islamabad. Conversations with him at the height of the Kargil conflict revealed how ruthlessly longtime military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq ruled the country as president and army chief. Zia led the country to embrace radical Islamic practices and policies nationwide. As DG (ISI), Gul played an active role in fomenting conflict by radical Islamic groups, both in Afghanistan and in J&K.
Despite his efforts to portray himself as a Cambridge-educated liberal cricketer, Imran Khan was in close contact with Gul, who became a founding member of his now-ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf party in Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, Imran Khan’s increasingly Islamist party was built on support from the Pakistani military. Guided by Gul, Imran became a radical Islamist, articulating fiercely anti-Indian policies, while portraying a “liberal” image to his Western friends. He also has the dubious distinction of ruining Pakistan’s relations with former good friends, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, through thoughtless actions, such as its growing ties with Turkey and Malaysia. This, even as India’s relations with Arab Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have grown stronger.
Pakistan has a reputation for living beyond its means and racking up debt. Imran Khan has no choice but to tighten his belt and accept the increasing conditionalities imposed by creditors for allocations from the strictest international lender, the International Monetary Fund. According to recent studies and Pakistani government reports, Pakistan has nearly doubled its external debt to over $85 billion in the past three years, while setting new records for external borrowing. Sri Lanka, however, showed foresight by not repeating its folly of borrowing more than it could repay from China for the port of Hambantota. Pakistan, however, appears to be digging an even deeper hole of unpaid debts, including to its friend China. Pakistan continues to borrow recklessly from China for its vaunted CPEC. At the same time, China has taken near-total control of the Gwadar transport corridor, even as Chinese fishing boats make extensive use of Gwadar to strip fish resources from the Arabian Sea. US President Biden did not speak to Imran Khan after taking office. Moreover, Washington will not forget the humiliation that Pakistan inflicted on the United States in Afghanistan.
Successive Pakistani prime ministers have recognized that while they can shape the direction of the country’s foreign and security policy, it would be dangerous for any leader to assume military leadership of the country, especially on national security issues and on relations with neighbours, India and Afghanistan. Imran Khan, however, seems to have set a course for himself, which is increasingly at odds with Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Imran Khan has forgotten the reality that if he could look for ways around some of the policies that the army chief does not support, it would be dangerous to undermine the role of the army chief.
Imran Khan’s problems with the military stem from the personal rapport he developed with his flamboyant and ambitious ISI leader, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed. The ISI boss made a big mistake in seeking to become the center of global media attention as the last Americans flew/fleed from Afghanistan. The ISI chief subsequently oversaw, amid global publicity, the removal of senior Taliban leaders like Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who were forced to flee Kabul to Kandahar. However, they quickly returned to seemingly less important, but influential positions. This decision was carried out with the help of the Taliban’s powerful ISI-backed Haqqani network, which operates in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Furious, Bajwa reacted swiftly, transferring the ISI chief to the post of commander of the Pakistan-Afghan border troops corps, which deals with the challenges the Pakistani military faces from the Afghan Taliban, the alongside the separatists and Pashtun nationalists Tehrik-i-. Taliban, Pakistan, operating on both sides of the Durand Line.
Neither the Taliban nor the Tehrik-i-Taliban properly respect the Durand Line as the international border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Stanikzai noted on January 6: “The Durand Line is a problem that concerns the whole nation, not just the government. It does not belong to the government. We will give the responsibility to the nation, so that the nation will make the decision. The political clock is now ticking in Pakistan on Pashtun territorial claims across the line. Meanwhile, amid disputes with General Bajwa, Imran Khan also faces a restive Baloch population, angered by violations of their maritime borders by Chinese fishermen, and the erosion of their rights in Gwadar.
The next 18 months will see significant changes in Pakistan. Bajwa is expected to retire in September. Meanwhile, the opposition is flexing its muscles to secure enough defections to bring down Imran Khan’s government. This can only succeed if the army gives the green signal to all concerned. In addition, Bajwa will have to recommend the name of his successor. Imran Khan would prefer to appoint his protege Faiz Hameed as the next army chief, with whose support he can secure re-election, before October 12, 2023. This could cause ripples within the army, as Faiz Hameed is the most three-star junior general among corps commanders. Would the military respect such a decision by a discredited prime minister in such circumstances, or would it act preemptively to enforce its priorities? There are too many imponderables right now. Army takeovers and regime changes are not unheard of in Pakistan!