An overview of the situation in Pakistan
by Vladimir Terehov on 15 Dec 2022 1 Comment

NEO has frequently reported on the situation in Pakistan, which has been in a highly unstable situation for most of this year, and at the time of this author’s last article supporters of Imran Khan, the former Prime Minister who stood down this spring, were gathering for a protest march to Pakistan’s first national capital, Rawalpindi – an event known as the Long March. The march was to have been headed by Imran Khan himself.


It should be pointed out, once again, that foreign interest in Pakistan’s internal politics is largely a result of the important role that the unseen “dealer” has allocated to Pakistan in the current phase of the great game of global geopolitics. Events within Pakistan are reflected, either directly or indirectly, in the strategies adopted by the main players.


This is entirely understandable, as this is a country in a highly sensitive geographical location, with an area similar to that of Ukraine, but a population five times greater. Pakistan has one of the most powerful militaries in the world, and has its own arsenal of nuclear weapons. That last factor, coupled with the chaotic state of its internal politics, has prompted the US President, Joe Biden, to express his concern about the situation. But Pakistan objected to his comments, which it saw as an attempt to interfere in its internal affairs.


On the subject of nuclear weapons, it may be worth adding a few words on one particular view of the role that they play in guaranteeing the security of any specific state that possesses them. Adherents to this view see nuclear weapons not so much as a means to impose irreparable damage on a geopolitical opponent as a sign that the country that possesses a nuclear arsenal will not countenance the idea of giving up control of any part of its territory under any circumstances.


Arguably, it may have been considerations of this nature, rather than the fact that such a policy would have been unthinkable, that prevented the opponents of the USSR from destroying the territory that remained after its collapse at the beginning of the 1990s.


In general, it is fairly obvious that propagandists of either sex should not be allowed to comment publicly on the subject of nuclear missiles (or indeed the current state of play in the great game of global geopolitics). After all, even cold weapons at one time used to bear the inscription: “Do not touch except in dire necessity”. That warning applied to those who bore these arms in the course of their duties.


In fact, Pakistan, like the majority of Asian countries, has more than enough reason to fear the loss of parts of its national territory. The risk posed by ethnic separatism has been demonstrated in numerous incidents, including, most recently, last month’s terrorist attack in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. In that incident, on November 30, a suicide bomber blew himself up next to a police truck. Three people died on the spot and another 27 were injured, some seriously.


But perhaps the most pressing problem facing Pakistan today is the deepening polarization that now dominates domestic politics, leaving society split into two opposing camps. This situation has been developing for a long time now, but has been especially evident since the National Assembly’s vote of no confidence that removed Imran Khan from power. Just before his departure, Imran Khan had proposed an appeal to the people, in the form of early elections, in a bid to end the political crisis. Since then, Imran Khan, now leading the opposition, has repeatedly demanded that the new government hold early elections.


But, no doubt in response to these demands, on November 26 the current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced that the next general elections will be held “on time, that is, after August 2023”. It is still difficult to say how the opposition responded to that statement, as the last general elections were held back in June 2018. It may be that the official decision to stick to fixed five-year terms will only add fuel to the opposition’s demands for this essential democratic procedure to be conducted ahead of schedule.


Pakistan’s domestic politics remain extremely volatile, as demonstrated on November 3, when a gunman attempted to assassinate the leader of the opposition. The attempt took place in Wazirabad, one of the stops on the 400-kilometer Long March referred to at the beginning of this article, which began on October 28 in Lahore, administrative centre of the Punjab.  Wazirabad is about half way along the route to Rawalpindi.


As the marchers stopped, a gunman fired a number of shots at the leader of the procession, who was standing at a higher elevation. As a result Imran Khan suffered three wounds to his lower legs. The gunman was tackled by participants in the march, thus preventing him from taking aim properly.


The gunman himself claimed that he acted from religious motives, and there is, as yet, no evidence that this was anything other than a “lone wolf” attack. It is fairly clear that the current government is perhaps the party with least to gain from an attempt on the life of the leader of the opposition. Imran Khan himself has claimed that he had been in possession of certain information about the planned assassination.


As for the call for general elections to be held ahead of schedule, this idea is now beginning to look a little more realistic. Speaking to an audience of supporters in Rawalpindi at the end of November, Imran Khan announced that he planned to seek the dissolution of the local parliaments in two provinces, the Punjab (home to approximately 40% of Pakistan’s population) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.


Both these parliaments are controlled by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (the Pakistan Movement for Justice Party), which was founded and is headed by Imran Khan. In the parliaments of the other two provinces the PTI is in the minority, and it is expected to leave these parliaments. The result is a deadlock, with each party controlling two of the four regional parliaments, and it is hoped that early general elections will help lead Pakistan out of this political crisis.


The current leadership has effectively defused another potential time bomb which was threatening political stability, namely the delay in replacing the Chief of Army Staff – a key position in a country where the military in practice plays an important role in all aspects of national administration. The change, which was the subject of much controversy and political debate between the two main parties, took place in the Pakistan Army headquarters in Rawalpindi at the end of November.


Significantly, the new Chief of Army Staff, General Asim Munir Ahmed, has announced that the army will “step back” from its de facto involvement in Pakistan’s internal political affairs. The announcement was welcomed by General Qamar Javed Bajwa, his predecessor in the post, although he noted that there were “historical justifications” for the army’s involvement in political life.


The present author agrees with that public statement by a highly respected statesman and notes that in this respect Pakistan is far from unique among Asian countries. It is therefore probably better not to try and predict what role the military will play in Pakistan’s political life in the future. Let us just point out that the de facto involvement of the military in Pakistan’s politics is not so much due to the personal political ambitions of the generals – although that factor is clearly present – as to certain objective factors that are also present in many other countries in Asia. Myanmar is an obvious example.


Given the above background, it is hard to see the current campaign against “autocrats and military regimes” led by the leaders of the so-called “free world” as anything other than barefaced hypocrisy of the most abject sort. These leaders have demonstrated that they are ready, in order to solve certain geopolitical problems, to sabotage the critical civilian infrastructure of their own ally. The sabotage of the Baltic Sea pipelines could possibly be described as the “terrorist attack of the century,” arguably much more serious, (given its clearly foreseeable consequences) than the notorious 9/11 attacks. The nature of those attacks, is should be noted, is still far from clear.


In practice it is the above leaders who continue, to a very significant degree, to form the world order in which countries like Pakistan have to try and find their own place. But in searching for a place in the world order, those countries also have to deal with their own internal problems, and in the case of Pakistan it is clear that those problems remain as challenging as ever.


Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.” Courtesy 

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