The Guardian view on Pakistan’s army: go back to the barracks – The Guardian

The confrontation between the country’s most popular politician, Imran Khan, and the generals threatens to paralyse the state
The standoff between Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister, and the country’s military is yet another sign that the political system created by the army is inherently unstable. Since independence, Pakistan’s generals have become ever more involved in running the country – and its civilian leaders ever more dependent on their backing. None of the nation’s 31 prime ministers has completed a full five‑year tenure. Politicians survive in office only if they do as they are told.
Trying to regain power against the army’s wishes is a dangerous business. Mr Khan is pushing ahead regardless. With the economy in a mess, he calculates that his best chance of winning an election is for one to be held as soon as possible. He also faces terrorism and corruption charges, which were the pretext on which he ended up in custody earlier this month. Mr Khan was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption body headed by a retired general. He says the charges are baseless. But if convicted he risks being disqualified from politics, a fate that befell his recent predecessor Nawaz Sharif, who also clashed with the army. Mr Khan fears watching the elections scheduled for this October unfold from a jail cell – if they are held at all.
The standoff between the army and Mr Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has broadened into a wider conflict. His arrest led to PTI supporters ransacking army properties – prompting a military crackdown. The country’s supreme court, headed by the chief justice, freed Mr Khan and declared his arrest illegal. What is emerging is a confrontation between two distinct political groups. Pitted against a section of the judiciary and Mr Khan are, it seems, the generals and the parties they endorse. Unless resolved, the contest will paralyse the country, whose economic troubles have already plunged 4 million Pakistanis into poverty. Even China, Pakistan’s closest ally, is publicly calling for its chaotic politics to be resolved.
The military in Pakistan has had many stints in direct control. They have all ended badly. Its attempts to manage politics from behind the scenes have corroded the reputation of the army and the politicians. Some might argue that praetorianism – the backstage rule imposed by soldiers – has a long pedigree. But that is little help today. Pakistan is a nation of 230 million people that requires technocratic expertise coupled with a light touch to navigate a complex society. Former soldiers are widely considered competent, but their takeover of the bureaucracy is a mask for government without consensus. The result is an institutionalised instability.
Probably the greatest cricketer his country has ever produced, Mr Khan did not distinguish himself as a brilliant administrator in office. Human Rights Watch has reported on his government’s intensified efforts to control the media and curtail dissent. But Mr Khan’s anti-corruption and pro-welfare platform has made him popular. Good government with an electoral mandate will be needed to negotiate the critical external funding required to avert a balance of payment crisis. Voters, not the generals, ought to be able to judge their leaders on the basis of their performance in office. Pakistan would be better served by having armed forces that are the military arm of the civilian government rather than having a government that is the civilian arm of the military.
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