A major reshuffle in Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet leaves key ministries in the hands of several technocrats and a former spymaster accused of protecting Osama bin Laden, all of whom previously served in General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime. Politicians loyal to Khan have also been sidelined.
The military, which assisted Imran Khan’s rise to power, used his celebrity status to tap into the yearning of change among Pakistani youth. But its objective all along was to restore what Pakistan’s generals see as their golden era. Under Musharraf, the military ran affairs of the state with the help of technocrats who managed a relatively booming economy.
In the minds of Pakistan’s generals, Musharraf’s team was competent because it secured large amounts of western assistance, pledging to fight terrorists while covertly assisting them at the same time. The civilian governments that succeeded Musharraf could not maintain the poker face and were, therefore, incompetent.
The soldiers believe in their own propaganda and do not realise that the double games of the Musharraf era have permanently eroded Pakistan’s international credibility.
The military set in motion a series of events – Khan’s sit-in outside parliament, disqualification of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif without a trial, corruption proceedings against major politicians, denial of media space to anyone the military did not like while building Khan’s image as a saviour – to help him win the deeply flawed elections of July 2018. Their purpose in doing so was not to bring the change Khan promised his young supporters but to undo the changes that had occurred since Musharraf’s removal from power.
Khan is a narcissist celebrity, with little experience of government, who also believes in his own propaganda. He assumed that as long as he did the military’s bidding in foreign policy and pursue the army’s critics with a vengeance, the civilian government and the military would remain on the same page.
The military leadership has now decided to change the writing on the page they share with the civilian prime minister. They want the economy to be run as efficiently as they believe it was run under Musharraf and they want cabinet ministers who can cover the tracks of Pakistan’s disreputable intelligence services.
As the generals see it, Pakistan did not face Financial Action Task Force (FATF) sanctions during the Musharraf era although a number of Jihadi terrorist groups operated openly. There was also less global criticism of enforced disappearances and mistreatment of religious minorities. Even the discovery of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear Walmart did not attract scrutiny that would have jeopardised Pakistan’s economy or security.
Thus, in the generals’ thinking, it is all about who presents Pakistan’s case to the world and how, not about changing the situation on the ground. Khan’s outgoing ministers did a poorer job than Musharraf’s team, hence a return to Musharraf’s team for key portfolios.
At the top of the list of Musharraf’s men inducted into Imran Khan’s cabinet is the new interior minister, Brigadier (R) Ijaz Shah – a former intelligence officer who served as director of the Intelligence Bureau under Musharraf. Shah is reported to have run terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir when he served in Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and his role as Musharraf’s hatchet man did not earn him a particularly good reputation either.
When Musharraf tried to nominate Ijaz Shah as High Commissioner to Australia, the Australian government withheld consent to that ambassadorial appointment – a rare occurrence in contemporary diplomacy.
Shah was also accused of playing a key role in harbouring Osama bin Laden and was named by Benazir Bhutto before her assassination as someone plotting to kill her. His appointment as minister in-charge of law and order is unlikely to advance the claim that Pakistan has turned the corner on sponsoring Jihadi terrorism at a time when FATF is considering blacklisting Pakistan. But Shah probably qualifies as a competent spymaster inside Pakistan’s hyper-nationalist bubble.
Another controversial appointment is that of Nadeem Babar, a businessman with interests in private power companies and a supposed expert on energy, as special assistant to the PM for petroleum and natural resources with the rank of a minister. Babar cannot be designated minister because he is not a member of parliament, one of 16 such persons in Khan’s 47-member cabinet.
There is a clear conflict of interest in making a person with business interests in the energy sector as the head of the ministry dealing with the sector. But there are other reasons why Babar should not have been appointed to the job. Apparently, his company Orient Power failed to pay Pakistan Rupees 800 million to Pakistan’s Sui Northern Gas Pipelines, ignoring the decision of the London Court of International Arbitration.
Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, a technocrat who served as Musharraf’s privatisation minister and was brought back as finance minister under Asif Ali Zardari, will replace Asad Umar as adviser for finance. Shaikh did well in his previous stints in government, but his appointment hardly represents change.
Fawad Chaudhry, who was the information minister and like Shaikh had served in the Zardari and Musharraf governments, has been appointed minister for science and technology. His replacement in the information ministry, Firdous Ashiq Awan, is also a veteran of the Zardari regime as are several others in the cabinet.
Considering that Imran Khan and the military blame Pakistan’s decline on elected leaders like Zardari, the choice of many of Zardari’s ministers in the new government suggests that Zardari was better at selecting members for his team than the new Captain.
As is often the case, there is always something to laugh about in otherwise disturbing news from Pakistan. Ijaz Shah’s appointment as minister of interior might be frightening, the rise of unelected advisers and the reinstatement of Musharraf’s team might be disconcerting, but the designation of Shehryar Afridi as minister for states and frontier regions is downright funny.
Khan’s government had announced the abolition of the Ministry for States and Frontier Regions (known as SAFRON) in September 2018. Afridi, who was interior minister until the cabinet reshuffle, might be a good choice to be minister of an abolished ministry because he believes Imran Khan can talk to the dead.
He is also the man who was filmed holding out assurances that Hafiz Saeed, head of the terror organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), would never be harmed by his government because Saeed and others like him raise their voice for “Pakistan and righteousness”.
As Pakistan’s generals might say, the new interior minister may have harboured bin Laden as alleged, but at least he was competent enough not to be filmed with him.