Foreign Policy

Pakistan’s Military Won’t Loosen Its Grip

Imran Khan’s conviction shows why the country may be fated to hybrid rule.

Senior Fellow and Director for South and Central Asia
Pakistan's soldiers pay tribute to their comrades as they take part in a ceremony to mark the country's Defence Day at Yadgar-e-Shuhada in Lahore on September 6, 2022. (Arif Ali/ via Getty Images)

Last Saturday, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan joined a long list of elected leaders in the country to be jailed on corruption charges after removal from office. Khan’s conviction for failing to declare income from selling gifts he received as prime minister disqualifies him from leading his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and from contesting national elections expected by November. Khan’s cult-like supporters regard him as a figure who can save Pakistan from corrupt, dynastic politics. With their leader in prison, they will step up their protest campaign against the former prime minister’s opponents, as well as the powerful military.

The military establishment now seems likely to prevail. Pakistan has never been a full democracy; the military ruled directly for decades and has retained a say in policymaking with a civilian government in power. Intelligence officials have influenced political parties and judges and manipulated elections. But a recent crackdown, which began after some of Khan’s supporters attacked military facilities after his initial arrest on May 9, has muzzled critics and left even less room for civil liberties. Dozens of opposition activists have been detained; PTI claims that the arrests number in the thousands.

As Pakistan’s traditional political parties join the generals in cornering Khan, the country is left with no major force calling for unadulterated democracy. The military says it is not involved in politics, but politicians are still pursuing the generals’ approval. And Khan himself is hardly a democracy advocate. For more than a year, he has fought the military, not to transform Pakistan’s political system but to pressure the generals into supporting his return to power. With politicians vying to secure the military’s backing instead of asserting civilian supremacy under the constitution, Pakistan seems fated to hybrid rule—if not outright military dominance.

Khan came to power with the military’s support, but he lost it last April, when the parliamentary opposition at the time joined together to oust him from office through a no-confidence vote. Initially, Khan accused the United States of conspiring with his opponents. But he later pivoted away from blaming Washington and turned against army leaders, naming generals and accusing them, without evidence, of plotting to kill him. (Khan was wounded when his convoy came under fire last November.) The opposition leader repeatedly demanded early elections and mobilized his followers to attack the police when they tried to arrest him; when paramilitary rangers detained him in May, some of Khan’s supporters turned their anger toward military installations.

Khan’s actions since losing office have been motivated by his belief that his personal popularity, coupled with Pakistan’s myriad crises, could trigger a revolution. This arrogance prompted him to tell his followers to attack the army headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi, burn a commander’s house in Lahore, and attack other military facilities, according to reports from Pakistani intelligence and statements from former PTI members. Instead of paving the way for free and fair elections, these violent attacks provided justification for mass arrests. Since then, second-tier PTI leaders have announced their decisions to leave the party, likely under pressure from secret services.

Khan’s style of politics has also brought new levels of incivility to Pakistan’s political discourse. After he was removed as prime minister last year, he described the politicians who had ousted him as “thieves, dacoits, [and] traitors.” Like many populist politicians, Khan has polarized the electorate, presenting a choice between supporting him or the country’s military. This rhetoric helped drive the attacks against the military installations on May 9. From the military’s perspective, its soldiers can be accused of errors of judgment but should not be made into objects of ridicule or hate. In any case, the generals would win any contest that involves violence.

Once the generals’ darling, Khan is now their bête noire. He asserts that the army wants to dismantle his party and end his political career, which seems to be true—even more so since his conviction. But instead of finding a solution within the framework of parliamentary democracy, Khan has acted with increasing belligerence. He chose to play a zero-sum game when he could have sought reconciliation with other politicians to strengthen democratic institutions. Khan seems to present a choice to his political opponents: accept him as their leader, paving the way for one-party leadership, or join with the military to keep Khan out of power, thus perpetuating civil-military authoritarianism.

In the process, Khan has fully burned his bridges with the military. Throughout Pakistan’s history, many politicians have criticized military leaders for playing a role in politics. None of them have gone as far as calling the army chief a traitor or accusing other generals of treason, as Khan has done. To his credit, the opposition leader has inspired Pakistanis disillusioned with politics. Before he was ousted as prime minister, his declarations that he and the military were on the same page brought retired officers and their families into PTI. (These supporters admire past military dictators and harbor distaste for the democratic parties because of their alleged corruption.)

Relatedly, the recent government crackdown has extended to serving and retired soldiers as well as members of military families. Last month, Pakistan’s parliament passed legislation that restricts retired military personnel from engaging in political activity for five years after leaving their jobs. The government cited some recently retired officers’ activism on behalf of Khan, arguing it had a negative impact on military morale. Under the new law, former soldiers may no longer “undermine, ridicule, or scandalize the armed forces”—a euphemism for criticizing the military leadership.

Since the generals refused to provide Khan with continued support last year, he has become more confrontational. In the past, Khan has praised China’s one-party system. His refusal to negotiate with other democratic parties suggests that even if he manages to return to power, his preferred mode of governance is authoritarian—with a single ruling party and an army that adulates him. Even if Khan could participate in this year’s elections, he has made it clear that he will not accept a losing outcome. And while the army leadership is less popular than before, it now has the support of most political factions in its effort to exclude Khan from politics.

In addition to the corruption charges, Khan and his followers now face the prospect of trial by military courts under Pakistan’s 1952 Army Act and 1923 Official Secrets Act, for inciting mutiny, spying, and taking photographs of military facilities. Human rights advocates around the world have rightly criticized the crackdown. But Pakistan’s military is hardly the first to react strongly to attacks against its facilities; it’s unlikely the perpetrators of such attacks would have escaped punishment elsewhere. Still, Pakistan has not struck a balance between punishing violent actors and taking away civil liberties. This trend is likely to continue, with or without Khan on the political scene.

In the zero-sum game he chose to play, Khan will most likely end up with nothing. But his political opponents hope—unrealistically—that the military will eventually take a back seat, handing over control of key policy decision to civilian leaders. Khan’s polarizing politics have made that even less likely. The generals cannot allow him back into power because of his potential for revenge; they see little reason to give a free hand to less popular politicians, who are dependent on the military to stay in power. Facing repression, the PTI may be reduced to a Khan fan club, angry about its hero’s circumstances but with few serious ideas about weakening the army’s grip or otherwise transforming Pakistan.

Democracy requires a civil opposition as much as a government limited by norms and rules, and Pakistan currently has neither. Experience suggests that recent developments have only prolonged hybrid rule in Pakistan—and indefinitely postponed the advent of full democracy.

Read in Foreign Policy.