The “deep state” or “establishment”, as the Pakistani military is pejoratively referred to in that country, was supposed to have thrown its crucial weight behind Imran Khan’s recent electoral success. The lurking shadow of the Pakistani generals in the garrison city of Rawalpindi had always loomed large for the past 10 years, even as the civilian governments alternated between the PPP first, and then the PML(N). The façade of civilian control was maintained even as the generals routinely intervened to rap the knuckles of the politicians each time the Pakistani military felt that the politicos had overstepped the red lines, and particularly so on India, Afghanistan and on matters pertaining to admittance of sovereign complicities. The generals had also not shied away from propping up political alternatives, as the hand of Rawalpindi was visible during the politically crippling “Azadi March”, where the Pakistani military propped up, nudged and posited Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf onto the centrestage of the public and political imagination.
Now Prime Minister Imran Khan has the delicate and onerous task of morphing from a rabid Opposition leader to a mature statesman, who must steer the crumbling Pakistani socio-economic destiny, while keeping the “establishment” on his side. Politically, Imran Khan has both the numbers in Parliament and a full five-year term ahead of him to effect changes. Unlike the PPP or the PML(N), he carries no personal baggage of institutional tensions with the Pakistani military. Psychologically and philosophically, Imran Khan’s pan-Pakistani persona and modernist moorings (irrespective of his public positions on some regressive matters like the blasphemy laws, Ahmediyas, etc) are more in tune with the westernised Pakistani military, as opposed to the feudal-regional appeal of the Sindh-centric PPP or the religious-conservatism of the PML(N). The real challenge for Imran Khan is therefore to “reset” (the term suggested by the recent American delegation) the Pakistani narrative, will depend on the dexterity, urgency and steadfastness in steering the societal, economic, civil, and even diplomatic changes, without touching the hyper-sensitive toes of the Pakistani generals.
Early optics suggests a more collaborative and inclusive politico-military approach. Unlike earlier times, when Pakistan’s civilian leaders and “Army House” held separate meetings with the visiting foreign delegations, Prime Minister Imran Khan held a joint meeting at his house, with the Army Chief in tow, for his first formal US-Pakistan engagement — with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, chairman of joint chiefs of staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and US special adviser on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. Then for all his posturing on austerity and anti-ostentation declarations, Imran Khan was understandably silent on the second largest government expense — military budgets. Even with the recent spike of 20 per cent in its budgetary allocation a few months back, the undebated, disproportionately large and unaudited military budget remained strictly off limits for Imran Khan’s corrective discourse. For a country reeling under an unsustainable annual bill of $24 billion for sovereign debt servicing, the thriving civilian enterprises of the Pakistani military and the generals themselves that pay negligible taxes found no mention in the Prime Minister’s national address.
The suggested “reset”, or recalibration, could take form of an inevitable quid pro quo, where Imran Khan could selectively and visibly pull back from meddling in Afghanistan affairs in order to pacify the Americans and reinstate US aid. ISI-patronised terror groups like the Haqqani Network, which have a specific Afghanistan mandate, have a residual, collateral and regressive impact of radicalisation and weaponsiation on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line that often spills violently onto its benefactors — the Pakistani military. Islamabad is already cornered by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) notices wherein it faces further punitive prospects by getting “blacklisted”. However, the same “reset” approach would not be extended to the India-focused terrorist groups in deference to the Pakistani military’s institutional necessity of retaining a formidable “enemy” and justifying its fat purse. But surrendering Pakistan’s “strategic depth” in Afghanistan could settle many issues immediately hounding Pakistan, and the generals too may not be averse beyond a point, given the circumstances and the known unreliability of terror groups, especially after the flush-out drives like Operation Zarb-e-Azb.
In enlisting support for this “reset”, Imran Khan may well find dealing with the generals a lot more straightforward than managing the ambitions and concerns of his own partymen and their agendas, most of whom are ship-jumping “electables” from other parties. Societally, conservative elements and the clergy too could put spokes in the plan, however much Pakistan’s military clamps down on any overt dissent in its inimitable manner. The Pakistani military and its generals in particular are used to a certain Western-style liberalism, freedom and luxury, which they know fully well will certainly not remain as forthcoming in case the Pakistani nation goes belly-up and in full control of the Chinese — with whom the Pakistanis have no civilisational, cultural or even religious commonality. The financially-powerful, historically benevolent and the still-very-relevant sheikhdoms of the Middle East would also be amenable to a thaw and re-engagement with the United States.
India in general and Kashmir in particular will remain the emotional epicentre and the coalescing factor for various Pakistani institutions, and beyond a point the Americans will restrict their aid-linked threats only to the Afghanistan theatre. Contrary to the promised reciprocity in “if India takes one step, Pakistan will take two”, any portents of peace in Kashmir would delegitimise Pakistan’s genealogical “two-nation” theory. Peace with India (especially after an imminent step-back in Afghanistan) would completely render the Pakistani military irrelevant and unnecessarily burdensome — a wholly unacceptable perception by Pakistan’s generals. Unfortunately, the tenor and approach of Pakistan’s new PM towards India is person-agnostic. However, the generals will support the anti-corruption, anti-feudal and socio-economic corrections that don’t interfere with its military sensitivities. Imran Khan has visibly toned down his Opposition-leader spiels and avoided taking belligerent positions, as the writing of the unavoidable “reset” is on the wall, and the leeway to do so by the Pakistani generals will only be in parts.