Pakistan has been on the boil lately rocked by a spate of crises. What has been behind the recent internal crisis in Pakistan? Sherlock Holmes would have answered thus, “It is Sino-US rivalry, stupid!”. No doubt this is so. It is this rivalry that has pushed Pakistan into this crisis. Oscillating between the US and Chinese laps, Pakistan is a typical case of a person who lives by begging. And beggars have to follow the edict of their benefactors.
Pakistan has been a surrogate of the USA since its inception. However, since 2015, when the $62 billion CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) project was conceived, Pakistan had begun to drift towards China. In Pakistan, it has been claimed that the Pakistan-China friendship is deeper than the ocean, higher than the Himalayas, and sweeter than honey!
This, of course, has hurt the USA. The point to be noted is that Pakistan has been double-crossing the USA but the latter has looked the other way, e.g. Pakistan’s secret nuclear programme was well known to the USA (President Ronal Reagan) but it chose to remain silent. Then, the Osama Bin Laden case and Pakistan’s double game in Afghanistan added to the USA’s agony. Despite this, the USA reportedly gave $39 billion to Pakistan between 2001 and 2020 for the “War on Terror”. It’s perplexing how the US allowed Pakistan to slip away into the Chinese fold. The fact is that the USA had the Pakistan Army and its generals favouring it.
The US Keeping Pakistan Amused
Despite its annoyance with Pakistan, the US had been keeping Pakistan amused such as by giving spares worth $700 million for F-16 fighters. The US was in communication with Imran Khan’s party the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) too. Recently, Fawad Chaudhry, a senior leader of PTI, met with the US ambassador to Pakistan. On the other hand, the PDM (Peoples Democratic Movement) Government of Shehbaz Sharif was trying to renew its relationship with China. Some time back, Pakistan’s new Army Chief, General Hafiz Asim Munir visited China and the ice has apparently melted. It is interesting to note that General Munir has no connection in the US. Therefore, he was not leaning on the USA.
China has been worried about its ‘bete noire’ Imran Khan’s return to power because of his massive popularity. Beijing has been closely watching the political developments in Pakistan. Close on the heels of the SCO meeting in India, on May 4-5, 2023, the Chinese Foreign Minister visited Pakistan on May 7, 2023. A press release by China advised Pakistan to ensure political stability. This was a green signal for the current Pakistan Government to act. The result was Imran Khan’s arrest.
Notwithstanding the Sino -US rivalry in Pakistan, the immediate cause of the unrest in Pakistan is Imran Khan’s arrest on May 9, 2023. Currently, he is a very popular leader among the youth of Pakistan. In fact, when he was the Prime Minister between August 2018 and March 2022, his credibility had nosedived due to non-performance. The conditions had worsened so much that the successor government of Shehbaz Sharif has been also unable to control the prices and the deteriorating economic conditions.
Pakistan today moves with a begging bowl to China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has taken a very tough stand. Inflation has been touching the skies, while ordinary people’s life has become miserable, in fact, unlivable.
Thus, the PDM Government of Shehbaz Sharif became tremendously unpopular and Imran Khan became popular at the PDM’s cost. What had helped Imran was his carefully crafted image of honesty – not that he is necessarily clean – by the Army by discrediting other politicians such as the Bhutto and Sharif families of Pakistan.
Imran Khan’s arrest has led to chaos and disorder in Pakistan. It is not a revolution but deliberately instigated riots to intimidate the authorities. Some analysts in Pakistan believe that it was pre-planned riots. The mob violence, arson and loot carried out by the rowdy followers of Imran Khan, hired or genuine, brought Pakistan to the brink of collapse.
The intensity of the violence was so grave that army installations too were not been spared. An ISPR tweet on 10 May 2023 lamented that “what the enemy could not do in 75 years, this group of goons (PTI workers) has done it in one day”. In Lahore, the Corps Commander’s house was ransacked and set on fire. In Islamabad, the GHQ of the Pakistan Army was attacked. Anarchy and chaos spread to all major cities. Pakistan is heading towards a very dangerous situation. The Army was called out in Punjab and KPK (Khyber Pakhtoon Khwa).
People are taking out their ire on the Army because of Imran Khan’s accusation that the Army was behind his overthrow in April 2022. Thereafter, he has been constantly accusing ex-Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa of betraying him. In February 2022, the Army decided to go “neutral”. An Infuriated Imran Khan had then called General Bajwa a “traitor”.
In fact, Khan has recently accused the Director General-C (DG-C) in the ISI set-up of making two attempts to get him assassinated. Even before his arrest on May 9, 2023, Khan had given a call to his supporters to be ready for a “street Jihad”.
The Army has not yet responded with a heavy hand but its intervention is expected soon. However, there are indications of divisions within the Army. Some corps commanders have reportedly refused to take action against the rioters. If true, this is a very serious crisis. Some reports say that there was a tussle between the current army chief (COAS) and the Chief of the Joint Services Committee (CJSC).
Nothing to Rejoice About
The excitement in India might be natural but there is nothing to rejoice about, for chaos can easily spill over to India, if we understand the logarithm of the crisis. Riots and violence, coupled with an extreme shortage of food and items of daily necessity may make people cross the Indian border. This would create a serious humanitarian and administrative crisis. Further, an unstable Pakistan would lead to religious overlords taking control. It could be another “Afghanistan in the making” with crazy hawks creating mayhem in Kashmir, which is just trying to get back to normalcy. India must remain vigilant and concerned.
The Pakistan crisis might seem like homemade anarchy but as highlighted right at the outset, its roots go to the US-China rivalry. One has to go back in history to understand the rise of Imran Khan from 2010 onwards. He was cultivated by the army and finally installed into the Prime Minister’s office in July 2018, through a rigged election.
Imran Khan has often claimed that he was always told by the Army that the earlier rulers were corrupt and they had bought huge properties in London and Dubai. It may not be wrong. But retired Pakistani Generals were no saints either. A large number of them have settled in Canada, USA, New Zealand, Dubai and Australia.
Thriving on Handouts
One retired Lt Gen Asim Salim Bajwa, whom Imran Khan had appointed as special advisor to his government and also Chairman of the CPEC authority had some 99 companies owned by his family in the US. Therefore, it was not only the politicians but also the Generals who have thrived on loans and aid doled out by the USA, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and China.
There is no doubt that Pakistan Army Generals have been very close to the USA. This is why their children get preferential treatment in the US. Almost all its senior officers in the past have had links there. Therefore, on US coaxing, Imran Khan was brought in to scuttle the much-hyped CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), started by Nawaz Sharif as prime minister in 2015. It boasted of an investment loan of $62 billion from China on various projects in Pakistan. More important was the freshwater port of Gwadar in the Arabian Sea opposite Oman. It provided a land route to China for its trade. Therefore, it was more beneficial to the Chinese for its trade with the Middle East and the rest of the world as part of China’s OBOR (One Belt One Road) project.
Resentment Among Baloch People
CPEC led to resentment among the Baloch people and the fledgling insurgency there gained momentum. A number of Chinese workers on various projects were killed. This annoyed China. Beijing, thus, became apprehensive of Imran Khan’s return to power. More so, when it was alleged that Khan’s party had hired a lobbying firm in the US to prop up his image.
Though Imran Khan was able to stall the CPEC, there was nothing else to show as his “performance”. The economy began to slow down. Prices of daily items, food products, gas, electricity, transportation etc. soared sky-high. People began to reel under the harrowing conditions. The Army realised that Imran Khan had not come up to their expectations and thus decided to do away with him. The melody of the Army and Imran Khan being on ‘One Page’ went awry. This turned Imran Khan into an anti-army, although he did try to patch up later but the army refused to play pals.
China has a deep strategic interest in Pakistan, particularly in the warm water port of Gwadar, which provides it with a land route to the Middle East. But it does not trust Imran Khan, who is likely to swing back to power if elections were held immediately.
China knew that General Asim Munir was not close to the USA. Therefore, China wanted not only to delay elections in Pakistan but also to discredit Imran Khan in such a way that his return to power is stalled.
Following Among the Young
In the last year or so, Imran Khan had been able to instil a following among young people, almost to the extent of blind devotion. His popularity index had to be brought down.
Everyone knew that Khan’s arrest would lead to riots and violence. The PTI and Imran Khan had worked out a plan of action in case of his arrest – this is quite evident from his call to his workers before setting out for Islamabad High Court, where he was arrested. But if Imran had pre-planned it, the PDM government too had planned to give rioters a free hand to allow them to cause mayhem. The resulting chaos would certainly affect the common man and the fence-sitters.
The call for political stability by China’s Foreign Minister had set out the plan for this unchecked violence. No wonder then that some PTI leaders like Shah Mohammed Qureshi and Arshad Umar have claimed that the perpetrators of violence were not their workers. Partly, it may be true. But the videos coming out of the Corps Commander’s House in Lahore, show the hand of Imran Khan’s party.
Finally, the present crisis in Pakistan is a big lesson for the Army and the people of Pakistan: Dependence on others does not make one stand on one’s feet. Another lesson is that neighbours cannot be changed. Constant confrontation with neighbours makes one dependent on others. Pakistan will continue to face such crises if it does not mend fences with India. Outsiders will only exploit it with “freebies” to make it “useless”.
-An ex-NDA and Wellington Staff College graduate, Col Rajinder Singh is a renowned author and security analyst. He has authored four books, two individually and two in collaboration. His best-selling books are Kashmir – A Different Perspective and The ULFA Insurgency. The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda