American Foreign Policy Council

Unpacking Pakistan Politics and Their Regional Implications

Research Fellow, India and South Asia
TOPSHOT - Pakistani naval marine take part in a drill during the International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS) 2022 at the beach in Karachi on November 17, 2022. (Photo by Rizwan TABASSUM / AFP) (Photo by RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP via Getty Images)
Pakistani marines take part in a drill on a beach in Karachi, Pakistan, on November 17, 2022. (Rizwan Tabassum/AFP via Getty Images)

Pakistan’s politics in 2022 reflect much of what has ailed the country for the last 75 years. They include civilian political parties trying to govern amid polarization and constant infighting, an all-powerful military-intelligence establishment that retains political control by switching its support from one interest group to another, an increasingly radicalized society, and a flailing economy.

The regional context, meanwhile, makes Pakistan’s situation all the more challenging. Afghanistan under Taliban rule has only increased Pakistan’s security dilemma. The United States now views India as its strategic partner of choice in the region, putting Pakistan at a disadvantage. Historical ideological allies like the Gulf Arab countries, too, have drawn closer to New Delhi—primarily for economic reasons. And China, still the partner of last resort for Pakistan, is increasingly voicing concerns about domestic developments in the South Asian state.1

Born of Crisis

Pakistan’s current crises are the culmination of decades of fraught policies. The desire to combat a perceived existential threat from India has resulted in over seven decades of unsustainable military expenditures that rested upon foreign (primarily US) support—support obtained by making promises that Pakistan’s leaders did not keep. The loss of foreign support in recent decades experienced by Islamabad because of changing geopolitics has been worsened by a refusal on the part of the Pakistani state to abandon ruinous, decades-old policies. 

For Pakistan, adopting the model of a rentier state in which it leveraged its geostrategic location to obtain military and economic aid from bigger powers (the US for several decades, and China more recently) went hand in hand with underinvestment in human capital and social development, to the detriment of the nation-al economy.2 The use of Islamist parties and militant groups for unconventional warfare with India, and against domestic opponents, has resulted in a radicalization of Pakistani society.  

Right from the start, democracy in Pakistan faced a challenge, as the country inherited a large army but lacked a national political party with grassroots sup-port. The military’s political role expanded as it came to view itself as the only national institution that could manage the contending ethnic and regional aspirations of Pakistan’s provinces. Four military dictatorships and behind-the-scenes political maneuvering by the army throughout have now permanently skewed civil-military relations. 

Pakistan’s army leadership has never trusted civilian politicians, and so has repeatedly intervened to remove civilian leaders through judicial or military coups. The army has also used its Islamist allies to pressure civilian parties and prevent them from undertaking policies that would be in Pakistan’s interest. 

The army likewise wants to ensure that no politician or political party is able to build a nationwide grass-roots base. Politicians often remain dependent on the army to stay in power. Every few years, army leaders have promoted the fortunes of a particular politician in the hope that they would become the civilian face for the military’s agenda of permanent conflict with India, dominance over Afghanistan, and a more centralized Pakistani state. Thus, the military backed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1960s, Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s, and tried to do the same with Imran Khan over the last decade, only to turn on them all when, after becoming popular, the politicians attempted to act independently. But repeated political engineering by the military has only made Pakistan more unstable. 

Fear of survival has engendered corruption and dynastic rule within civilian political parties and prevented the rise of newer, broad-based and democratic ones. Suppressing ethno-linguistic nationalism by advancing religious nationalism, meanwhile, has resulted in violent repression of demands for greater autonomy among Pakistan’s various ethnicities. The continuing civil war in Balochistan illustrates this problem. 

Pakistan’s military establishment chooses winners and losers in politics. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan was the military’s civilian-of-choice and came to power in 2018, after the security establishment winnowed the electoral field for him and provided behind-the scenes support.3 Thereafter, however, Khan’s years in power were marred by poor economic decisions, problematic foreign policy, and ineffective governance. 

As Pakistan’s economic crisis grew, and tensions between Khan and the establishment deepened, a coalition of opposition parties used the opportunity to push a no-confidence motion against Khan in parliament. The establishment abandoned their support for Khan and the so-called “hybrid regime”—in which civilians and military ostensibly worked together. But instead of facing a no-confidence motion in parliament and accepting defeat gracefully, Khan claimed that his ouster, when it came, was orchestrated by the United States, with the help of the army leadership. Khan used the army’s own playbook against it: he blamed his removal on a foreign conspiracy, used anti-Americanism and pan-Islamism to rally support on the streets, and labelled anyone who disagreed with him—including military leaders—as anti-national.

Reaping the Whirlwind

It is taking considerable effort by the army to fight an ideology that it itself crafted, and to subdue monsters it had sustained. There were enough people within the lower and middle ranks of the military, in the media, and within the middle and lower middle class in Pakistani society who believed—and some who still do—Khan’s narrative, especially as it echoes what is taught through the educational curriculum.4

Khan’s rhetoric has only deepened the fault lines with-in Pakistani society and polity. He has used social media and street protests to apply pressure on the government and the military establishment. 

As a result, the coalition government of Pakistan’s two largest parties—the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)—that took power in April 2022 is now finding it difficult to govern. Government leaders are spending most of their time putting out fires lit by Khan and his supporters. 

This domestic political instability has made it difficult for the coalition government to implement tough economic decisions that are critical for Pakistan’s long-term recovery. In August 2022, Pakistan avoided an economic meltdown and received the next tranche of its bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after drawn-out and exacting negotiations.5 But Pakistan’s rupee remains one of the world’s worst performing currencies, the country’s foreign exchange reserves are abysmally low, and Islamabad is finding it difficult to attract foreign investment even from friendly countries in the Gulf.6 

Pakistan’s economic problems are structural in nature, and unless and until they are tackled the country will always remain close to catastrophe. To wit, Pakistan’s economy is heavily dependent on the export of cotton textiles, with little investment in diversification. The literacy rate, meanwhile, stands at 52 percent, the lowest in South Asia, resulting in an unskilled labor force that migrates primarily to the Gulf and sends remittances back.7 Pakistan’s tax to GDP ratio is one of the lowest in the world, and key segments of the economy, such as agriculture and some military-run corporations, are exempt from income tax. Instead of raising revenue through taxes, successive governments have preferred to keep providing subsidies to avoid political and social unrest. 

Poor management during the Khan era, coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, left Pakistan’s economy badly battered. To forestall balance of payments difficulties, in 2019 Pakistan again borrowed from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—its 22nd loan from the institution since 1958. The move was part of a larger pattern; Pakistan has a habit of drawing the initial tranches of an IMF disbursement and then abandoning the program so as to avoid fulfilling stringent conditions for economic restructuring.8

But the IMF is not the only entity keeping Islamabad afloat. Since 2018, Pakistan has borrowed $10 billion from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and China. The heavy dependence on external creditors was on display when, soon after the announcement of the latest tranche of the IMF bailout loan, Pakistan stated that it hoped to receive loans from friendly countries as well.9

Then there is the issue of Afghanistan. Pakistani strategists had expected the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul to be beneficial to their country. Since independence in 1947, Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy has always centered around the India factor, with a pro-Pakistani, anti-Indian regime in Kabul deemed essential for security. Since the 1990s, the Taliban have therefore been Pakistan’s partner-of-choice. But the August 2021 victory of the Taliban has turned out to be a Pyrrhic one for Islamabad. 
Devoid of international recognition, and without significant developmental aid, the Taliban have become a burden on Pakistan – one that Islamabad is finding it difficult to carry at a time when its own economy is weak and there is no American or Western largesse flowing. The victory of the Taliban next door has also deepened Pakistan’s own security problems by energizing the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), resulting in a resurgence of deadly terror attacks inside the country.

Dead End Policy

Pakistan, a country carved out of British India in 1947, has been in crisis mode for the last 75 years. An ideo-logical state, the country’s national identity and foreign policy are centered around a perceived existential threat from neighboring India. A national security state with weak civilian institutions, the Pakistani army has dominated virtually every aspect of state policy. Instead of investing in its people and in building a strong economy, the country’s elite has preferred to have it serve as a rentier state for great powers. It is a policy that lies at the core of the country’s myriad crises. 

Pakistan’s polity is deeply polarized. Its society has been radicalized further. The economy is weaker than it was four years ago. And the nation is more isolated on the world stage than ever before. Nine months after taking power, the coalition government currently governing Pakistan has been unable to move beyond the country being in crisis mode. Current Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif is a good administrator, but he lacks the political skills of his older brother (and three-time premier), Nawaz. The government also faces the almost impossible task of attracting economic investment from Western countries, especially the United States, and improving Pakistan’s image abroad.

In any normal country, the announcement by a terrorist group that it is resuming its campaign of violence would result in introspection.10 In Pakistan, however, it is simply viewed as the collateral damage of a decades-old policy of diminishing India’s preeminence in the neighborhood. Internally, the military-intelligence establishment may admit that supporting the Afghan Taliban was a mistake. But it cannot acknowledge that fact publicly. Similarly, the army’s top brass knows Pakistan cannot wrest Kashmir from India by force, but remains unwilling to place the issue on the back burner and allow for trade and normal bilateral relations with New Delhi.

To move forward and resolve its domestic economic and political challenges, Pakistan needs political reconciliation at home and better relations with its immediate neighbors—especially its largest neighbor, India. For India, a Pakistan that is politically and economically stable, and which does not use jihad as a lever of foreign policy, would be an ideal end-state. However, this would require redefining Pakistan’s view of India as an existential threat, of Afghanistan as Pakistan’s backyard, of Pakistan as a rentier state for great powers, and of Islamist groups as useful instruments to advance domestic and regional policies. These are redlines that the army is unwilling to allow the country’s civilian politicians to cross. And, although bruised, Pakistan’s military establishment remains the most powerful institution in the country. 

At its core, Imran Khan’s skirmish with the army, both while in power and since, has been over who has the right to appoint the next army chief. The PML-N and PPP, along with their other coalition partners, wanted to ensure that they, not Imran Khan, were key to that decision. That decision has now been made, and the current government may survive until the country’s next elections, in 2023. But none of this changes Pakistan’s defining realities. It remains a nuclear armed state, with a troubled relationship toward jihadi groups, that is plagued by chronic political instability and economic chaos.

Read in the American Foreign Policy Council's Defense Dossier.