The images of enraged mobs attacking a Corps Commander’s residence and General Headquarters (GHQs) immediately after the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan illustrate the challenge facing Pakistan’s mighty army. Speculation of divisions among the army’s officer corps notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the chain of command and discipline within the army will endure. But at a time of intense polarisation in Pakistani society, the army cannot remain unaffected by intense divisions among Pakistanis.
Imran Khan enjoys massive popularity in military families, which have spent the last three decades hating the country’s traditional politicians. Serving and retired military officers and their children have had a privileged life since the days of General Zia ul Haq and most of them buy into the overly simplistic view that Pakistan’s only problem is politicians who are “crooks” or “traitors”. Since, in their view, Imran Khan is neither, and he also reflects nationalist ‘jazba’; he is the only civilian leader acceptable to them.
In my book ‘Reimagining Pakistan’, I have explained the concept of ‘jazba’, which means ‘passion, spirit, and strong feeling or emotion’, a uniquely Pakistani blend of religion, patriotism, and antagonism towards India, the United States, and anyone else who might interfere with the greatness for which Pakistan is destined. For those who believe, ‘jazba’ is the guarantor of Pakistan’s success in all fields, from the sport of cricket to the economy and warfare.
The believers in ‘jazba’ often do not analyse, they only emote. For them, Pakistan’s problems are not the result of bad policies. They are attributable to “the lack of sincerity and jazba” of someone or the other. Imran Khan’s engineered political rise was largely based on the ‘jazba’ narrative. In fact, his hardcore followers speak of ‘jazba junoon’, or the spirit of madness, in loving him as Pakistan’s saviour.
The army nurtured the ‘jazba’ narrative that propelled Imran Khan into power and is now finding it difficult to get men and women who live in or have grown up in cantonments to change their worldview just because senior generals have realised its limitations. Pakistan’s generals have always been divided between pragmatists, who realise the complexities of the world, and those who are ideological to the point of ignoring everything else. The latter are often drawn to conspiracy theories, which Imran Khan also loves spreading.
Former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had thought that he could use Imran Khan’s charisma and celebrity status to create a political force that would keep traditional politicians in check and enable him to drive from the back seat while maintaining the trapping of democracy. That did not work out. When Bajwa tried to make pragmatic adjustments in Pakistan’s relations with the West and India, Imran Khan stuck to the ideological paradigm.
Moreover, Pakistan’s economy did not do better under Khan, who failed to fulfil his key promise of repatriating wealth allegedly ‘stolen’ from Pakistan by traditional politicians and stashed abroad. Imran Khan also interfered with Bajwa’s personal ambitions and that led to Bajwa’s decision not to help his mentee beat the Vote of No Confidence brought against Khan last year by the traditional politicians.
Imran Khan has, over the years, become a master narrative builder, which is easy to do when you deliberately ignore every fact and have cult-like followers who accept everything you say. Khan blamed his ouster on a conspiracy by the United States and virtually called upon the army to restore him to office or hold immediate elections, which he hopes to win. The army’s refusal to do so has led to stepping up of rhetoric against the army’s senior commanders.
It is wrong to portray Khan’s supporters as having turned against the army or even against military intervention in politics. His party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), has in its ranks the son of late military dictator General Zia ul Haq, the grandson of Pakistan’s first coup maker Field Marshal Ayub Khan, and all major civilian collaborators of General Pervez Musharraf. None of them have publicly said anything to suggest there was anything wrong with Pakistan’s past military interventions.
By speaking out against the current army leadership, these people are simply trying to get the army to put its weight behind Khan again, where they feel it rightly belongs as long as Pakistan is a democracy. If, at some point, Pakistan’s democratic system breaks down again, and direct military ruler returns (which is difficult under current circumstances), many of Khan’s supporters will go back to supporting the army against ‘corrupt’ politicians (minus Khan, of course.)
Imran Khan’s strategy seems to be to use his popularity with military families to force a change in the high command’s decisions. Several years ago, Khan had remarked in a dinner conversation overseas, which was recorded on video, that Pakistan’s generals feared the mob. In recent months, he has been testing out his theory by gradually unleashing the mob against the army.
But if, as a Chinese government statement recently described it, the Pakistan army is the “defender of Pakistan’s national security and stability”, its leaders cannot afford to be swayed by either the mob or the ideological spirit of military family members and retired officers.
Given its size and command structure, the Pakistan army is not an institution that can easily be fractured or divided. But ideologues have flourished in its ranks before and might exist even now.
The late Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, for example, often bragged that he put his Islamic faith and his own resolve to protect Pakistan from external and internal enemies above his loyalty to the chain of command or to Pakistan’s Constitution. But Gul’s bragging came largely after retirement. Even now, the most outspoken advocates of Imran Khan’s cause are retired officers, not serving ones.
Pakistan’s army chief has to take into account the sentiment of his officers and troops but, at the end of the day, the decisions of the army High Command prevail. We are currently seeing a massive effort by Imran Khan and his supporters to sway the High Command. Of course, attacking military installations will probably dent that effort significantly.