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The Restless Power Cycle in Pakistan

26 Aug 2023 - 9:22

Translator : Zahra Khademi rad

It can be predicted that the power cycle in Pakistan will continue to be a rotation of power between army generals and political parties. As a result, Pakistan is expected to be excluded from the sustainable development process - at least compared to its regional rival, India.

By: Pir Mohammad Molazhi

In Pakistan, three sections play a role in the formation of political power:
1- The army
2- Political parties
3- Religious groups
The competition of these three power centers has always been the main factor in the restless power cycle in the country. The army has the main role, political parties are in the second rank, and religious groups are in the third rank of influencing politics and power. There is a humorous saying in Pakistan which says ‘every country has its own army, but Pakistan's army has its own country’. This general perception shows the army's control over the country and its management.

Since the establishment of Pakistan, the military has been in the position of power in the country. In 1958, General Ayub Khan the army commander, made a coup against Iskandar Mirza's government and left a tradition that was later followed by other generals. After that, in periods of almost ten years, generals (including General Yahya Khan, General Zia-ul-Haq, and General Pervez Musharraf) removed the political parties from power through coups, and placed themselves at the head of power.
The fact is that the generals handed over power to the political sector only when the country was in crisis and they were not able to run the country in practice. But even during the period of party rule, the army has remained as the main power behind the scene.

This policy of the army has always kept the parties in a state of weakness and breakdown. However, the political parties have still remained in a power challenge with the military. The two most powerful parties have remained as the main contenders for power and rivals of the army generals: Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) which is dominated by the Punjabi ethnic group, and Nawaz Sharif wealthy family; and The Pakistan People's Party (PPP), with its social base in the Sindh province and centered around the Bhutto feudal family.

In recent years, when the challenge between the army generals and the main parties intensified and involved Pakistan in several crises, the army supported a third party in order to prevent the main parties from regaining power: Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) founded by former Cricket Captain Imran Khan. This army’s trick was apparently effective and Imran Khan gained power and remained in alliance with the army for a while. But when he wanted to show more independence, the disagreements between him and the army started to appear. The army, which did not see the situation favorable for a coup, prepared the ground for Imran Khan's removal through political actions and the breakdown of PTI. So far, more than 100 political figures have resigned from Imran Khan's party, and registered a new party called Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP). After Imran Khan’s removal, the army was forced to hand over the post of Prime Minister to Shehbaz Sharif (Nawaz Sharif’s brother, and the Chief Minister of Punjab). Imran Khan accused of corruption and weakening the army and was facing the risk of imprisonment, but his supporters resisted and for the first time in the history of Pakistan, they attacked army headquarters and barracks, despite Imran Khan's request them to respect the army. This development shows that the position of the army has been weakened in a part of the society. However, the truth is that the Pakistan army has made strategic mistakes and has weakened its position itself. Among the strategic mistakes of the army, two are more prominent:

1. Strengthening the radical and ideological movement of Sunnis in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the region
The ideological movement of the Taliban is organized in two parts:
1- Afghan Taliban
2- Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)
The goal of both of these Taliban movements is to turn Afghanistan and Pakistan into an Islamic Emirate, a subset of the Islamic Caliphate in the form of the Great Khorasan Caliphate, which starts from the Caucasus and includes the Muslims of Russia, Central Asian countries, Afghanistan, Eastern Iran, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, and even extends to Malaysia and Indonesia.
The Taliban's thought is actually a combination of three ideological movements: The Deobandi movement of the Indian subcontinent, the Middle Eastern Wahhabi movement, and the Pashtun ethnic values and traditions called Pashtunwali.

The combination of these three schools of thought has given the Taliban's thought two prominent features: ideological monopolization of power, and ethnic monopolization of power.
The thought of the Taliban, which returned to power with the joint support of the United States and Pakistan in the Doha deal, is to turn Pakistan into an Islamic Emirate after establishing power in Afghanistan through TTP.
The current political crisis in Pakistan, which has intensified following Imran Khan’s removal from the position of prime minister, has given hope to three radical movements of Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Islam State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) that they will be able to rebuild the core of the Khorasan Caliphate in the Indian subcontinent.

2- Involving Pakistan in the competition between Eastern and Western power blocs
The second strategic mistake of the Pakistan army was that it leading the country in the path of international competition between China and the U.S. In the current conditions, the global competition for achieving the hegemonic power of the 21st century is very intense. By handing over the strategic Gwadar port to China, the Pakistan army has facilitated China's influence in South Asia and the Middle East region, which has led to the negative reaction of the United States. Stopping or reducing the U.S $2 billion aid to Pakistan's government and army is thought to be a sign of dissatisfaction with Pakistan's policy of closeness to China. At the same time, this Pakistan’s policy almost coincided with America's choice of India as a strategic ally, instead of Pakistan, in the Indian subcontinent.

These developments put Pakistan in the center of the competition of great powers. In fact, Pakistan with its one-sided approaches, exposed itself to the trade of great powers and was forced to depend on one of the global sources of power; unlike India which managed to adopt a balanced policy between global sources of power, and prioritize its national interests. Part of the governance crisis in Pakistan - which the army is plotting it - is caused by the policy of dependence on the competing global powers. In fact, closeness to one power causes displeasure of another competing power.
In addition to such challenges that Pakistan is dealing with, the civil war in Baluchistan has caused additional problems. The political and ethnic structure of Pakistan which has a quasi-federal form, the dominance of Punjab over other states, and the unbalanced distribution of national power and wealth have caused unbalanced economic development in the country, and this itself has become a factor for the influence of rival powers.

In any case, and in a preliminary assessment, it can be said that Pakistan is among the politically unstable countries, and it is difficult to imagine that it can achieve the necessary stability in the short term. More likely, the crisis caused by Imran Khan’s removal from power and the resistance of his supporters will widen the scope of the political crisis in the short term, although the army does not seem to be in a position to launch a new military coup and monopolize the power for another decade. In fact, the domestic and international conditions do not seem favorable for the acceptance of a military rule, unless the crisis spreads and becomes uncontrollable to the extent that the army is forced to intervene. In short, it can be said that Pakistan is facing a serious crisis in three levels:

The first level: the growth of religious extremism trend in which the army has been involved, and caused the formation of three movements of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISKP.
Second level: The ethnic and separatism crisis in the Baluch and Pashtun states, which may turn into a serious crisis in the future if the conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan intensifies. It is because the Taliban believes that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and seven independent tribal areas, along with Baluchistan which Afghans consider to be southern Pashtunistan, are historically part of Afghanistan's land, which were separated from Afghanistan during the British colonial period and were annexed to India, and then inherited by Pakistan.
The third level: The crisis caused by the competition of world powers. China and Russia on the one side, and the United States and the European Union on the other side have entered into a serious and fierce competition for influence in Pakistan. It can affect the future of the country and provokes political instability, economic and social crisis, and separatist ethnic movements in the medium and long term.
So, it can be predicted that the power cycle in Pakistan will continue to be a rotation of power between army generals and political parties. As a result, Pakistan is expected to be excluded from the sustainable development process - at least compared to its regional rival, India.

Pir Mohammad Molazehi, is a senior expert on subcontinental issues.

Story Code: 3548

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Institute for East Strategic Studies