Pakistan's Military Still Runs the Show: Why Imran Khan's Revolt … – Foreign Affairs Magazine

The ultimate truth of Pakistan’s politics is deceptively simple: power flows through the barrel of the gun. Regardless of who holds the reins of the government in Islamabad, the military has always been and continues to be the de facto arbiter of politics in the country. Short of a coup, the generals have typically maintained their supremacy and control by cobbling together “king’s parties”—alliances of convenience and opportunity among the country’s politicians—to counter any civilian challengers. The military puts these concocted factions in power by engineering elections. It then ruthlessly discards its erstwhile partners if they fail to toe the line. For their part, politicians have often exhibited a cynical pragmatism that justifies working with the military as the only certain route to power. The politicians’ self-serving habit of knocking on the barracks doors has allowed the military to divide and rule for much of Pakistan’s 76 years of independence.
The rise and fall of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister from 2018 to 2022, followed this trajectory. Under General Qamar Javed Bajwa, then the chief of staff, the army had catapulted Khan to power. The generals had launched Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), as a “third force” in 2011 to counter Pakistan’s two largest traditional parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and the rival Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The military saw the success of those parties as a threat to its outsize role in the country’s politics and national security. According to reports by election observers and rights organizations, the military manipulated parliamentary elections in Khan’s favor in 2018 by tilting the playing field against the PML-N of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Initially, the alliance between Khan and the generals held. But after a few years, Bajwa grew tired of the poor economic performance of Khan’s government and was angered by the prime minister’s unwelcome meddling in the appointment of the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, Pakistan’s leading intelligence agency. His rift with Bajwa set the stage for a parliamentary vote of no confidence in 2022 that cost Khan his office. As has happened so frequently in Pakistan, the military lifted a civilian leader to the top before unceremoniously dragging him down.
But what followed Khan’s ouster was a surprise. Khan refused to go quietly, leading an energetic and vitriolic campaign against the new government and the army. Events came to a head in May 2023, when Khan was arrested on corruption charges, sparking protests and attacks by his supporters on the army’s headquarters, military installations, and even memorials to Pakistani soldiers. The military appeared to dither in responding to the most visceral and direct challenge it had faced in years. And for a brief while, many observers sensed that the eternal undertow of Pakistani politics had somehow reversed. The military’s reluctance to use force to quell the protests fueled suspicions about an internal fracture between those who backed Khan and those who did not. A divided military, some argued, would not be able to act in a concerted way and bring Khan and his supporters to heel and might even lose the ability to dominate the domestic political sphere.
That was not to be. The military has defied any suggestion of its fractiousness. It has maintained its cohesion to systematically repress the PTI and reclaim its domination of Pakistani public life. Khan’s populist and polarizing bid to regain power has been dealt a huge, most likely fatal blow by the institution that once enthroned Khan. His opponents, the civilian political parties that have long sought to minimize the military’s control of Pakistani politics, have become even further compromised in the process, allowing the reassertion of the military’s primacy and weakening the country’s already beleaguered democratic norms and institutions.
Pakistan’s current political crisis has been a year in the making. In April 2022, the military supported a successful vote of no confidence against Khan by a coalition of opposition parties as well as Khan’s disgruntled coalition partners. Sensing his imminent defeat, Khan made a futile last-ditch attempt to salvage his government and mobilize his supporters by accusing the United States and its supposed local collaborators (Bajwa and Khan’s civilian opponents) of attempting to carry out “regime change.” After his removal from office, Khan took to the streets, organizing nationwide rallies to lash out at the military, mocking the generals for their avowed neutrality by comparing them to animals devoid of a conscience, and repeatedly declaring Bajwa a coward and a traitor.
Supporters flocked to his banner. Buoyed by this visible popular support, several subsequent victories for his party in by-elections in Punjab, and the backing of many justices of the Supreme Court and the high courts, Khan thought he could up the ante by pressuring the military to abandon the new civilian government and hold snap elections that he believed he would win. Khan and other PTI leaders also gambled that they could exploit his presumed support within the ranks to drive a wedge between the army chief Bajwa and the rest of the officer corps. That strategy backfired immediately after one of Khan’s close aides was jailed for inciting army officers to disobey commands from their superiors on a live TV news show in August 2022.
Khan continued to escalate his confrontation with the military, threatening to march on Islamabad to stall the appointment of Bajwa’s replacement, General Asim Munir. Khan and Munir had feuded when Munir was the head of the ISI in 2019; tensions between them now mounted. In December 2022, Khan survived an assassination attempt. Without providing any evidence, he blamed the ISI for ordering the hit.
That open hostility fueled the events of May 9 this year. Khan’s followers, enraged by his arrest on corruption charges and fearing that he might be killed in detention, attacked several military installations, including the army’s general headquarters in the northern city of Rawalpindi and other high-profile targets. The army, at least on the surface, seemed shaken.
An army must be united to maintain its monopoly of violence in a country. The Pakistani army’s decision to stay in the barracks during the May 9 protests understandably led some observers to argue that the top brass were unsure what to do; Munir may have feared that any rash action could lead to a coup against him from commanders who favored Khan. The revelation that soldiers guarding a few key military sites offered no resistance to the protesters further fueled this notion. PTI supporters also breached the heavily guarded perimeter of the army headquarters and forced open its gates, a serious transgression by unarmed civilians that seemed at least initially to have been allowed by the military.
There is no denying that Khan poses a unique challenge to the military. Once the army’s proxy, he has now gone rogue with a vengeance and is trying to tear apart the military’s institutional integrity by sowing dissension in its ranks against the army chief. The army is also probably concerned that Khan finds his main support base among the traditionally pro-military urban middle classes in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province and the heartland of army recruitment. Khan enjoys substantial support from influential retired military officer groups that have mobilized their members to turn the army leadership against the ruling civilian government. Anecdotal evidence points to Khan’s abiding popularity in the army, especially among junior officers, who have been fed a decadelong campaign of propaganda and misinformation about the alleged corruption and venality of the traditional political class, portraying Khan as the messiah who could magically solve all of Pakistan’s problems.
But these sympathies for Khan have not been strong enough to lead to a genuine rupture within the military. The army is still united, in lockstep with directives from its leaders, and bent on stamping out the challenge posed by Khan. The crackdown, when it arrived, was uncompromising, and the PTI crumbled under the army’s pressure. Although Khan was released from detention on the Supreme Court’s orders and is free, almost the entire leadership of his party has been detained, and many of its luminaries have since quit and forsworn politics. Thousands of arrested party workers face serious charges, including arson and terrorism, and many of them will be tried in military courts notorious for their high conviction rates often based on coerced confessions.

In hindsight, Khan and the PTI were naive in thinking they could pry apart the military, whose history, culture, and structure have made it a remarkably stable institution and have entrenched it in the Pakistani state and society. War with India has shaped the military, and the perceived threat of Pakistan’s militarily superior neighbor helps keep the army united. Soldiers are socialized into obedience, conformity, and a tenacious sense of guardianship that reinforce the military’s cohesion. Employment in the army provides upward social mobility for many middle-class and lower-middle-class families, a boon that can dissuade potential dissent. The army provides all its personnel with an institutionalized cradle-to-grave welfare system, as well as lavish perks and privileges in the shape of land grants and civilian posts that tether high-ranking officers to the army even after they retire. Besides the loss of pensions and other benefits, violating military discipline can result in harsh punishments.
Finally, the Pakistani army’s organization into 11 corps presents a coordination dilemma for any would-be dissidents. Each corps is headed by a lieutenant general who has operational control of the troops under his command. A successful internal coup would require successful coordination between the separate corps. If just one corps commander decided to resist an attempted coup, the army could easily tumble into internecine war. Junior officers have plotted coups in the past (in 1970, 1980, and during the 1990s), but none of them were successful because the top commanders remained loyal to the high command. It is no surprise that coups in Pakistan succeeded (in 1958, 1977, and 1999) only when led from the top by the army chief.
Pakistani army officers may have differences of opinion over institutional policies and personal party affiliations and may form attachments to different political leaders. But the PTI’s direct assault on military installations and the army’s symbols of national service and sacrifice brought the threat too close to home. Although the army stayed in its quarters during the protests ostensibly to avoid civilian casualties, the attacks allowed Munir to consolidate his command and rally the troops around the claim that the events of May 9 amounted to a national tragedy that demanded a firm and decisive response. The army’s public relations machinery kicked into gear to build broader public support for the crackdown on the PTI through pro-military journalists, social media campaigns, and patriotic songs evoking the sacrifices of the soldiers.
While the army appears to have papered over its putative internal differences, Pakistan’s political parties and leaders remain hopelessly divided. When Khan was in power, the PML-N and the PPP banded together with other parties to create a united opposition under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which objected to military intervention in the country’s politics (the PPP is no longer part of the PDM, although it is the PDM’s coalition partner in the current government). Khan and his military partners had many opposition leaders jailed on trumped-up corruption charges. But when fissures grew in the relationship between Khan and Bajwa, the avowed democrats were only too happy to exploit these differences to strike back.
Khan’s civilian opponents have since sided with the military against the PTI, not least because of their dwindling political prospects amid Pakistan’s dire economic crisis with rising inflation and a looming debt default (partly a result of Khan’s policies). The PML-N, which now leads the government, has moved to neutralize Khan, mainly because Khan’s party appears to have made significant gains in the traditional PML-N stronghold of Punjab. The government has provided political cover to military repression by endorsing the army’s actions since the turmoil of May 9 and even approved the trials of the “rioters” and their “instigators” in military courts under the Army Act, which clearly violate every Pakistani civilian’s constitutional right to a free trial, as well as international law. 

The real loser in this high-stakes game is Pakistan’s fragile democracy. With the military using the full panoply of the state’s coercive power to decimate the PTI, Khan has flipped back and forth between lambasting the generals and making futile overtures to them for another crack at power, which he knows would require getting the army onside. Khan and his civilian opponents are separated by seemingly unbridgeable divides. He has blamed the PDM for turning the army chief against him and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the current government, making it impossible for the rival political parties to strike a compromise on the timing of elections. Khan portrays his entirely constitutional ouster in 2022 as the snuffing out of democracy and claims that his only demand is the holding of a free and fair vote, but his track record indicates he is no democrat. As prime minister, he showed little tolerance for dissent and opposition, demonstrated utter contempt for parliamentary norms and procedures, and even expressed a desire to transform Pakistan’s federal parliamentary form of government into a centralized presidential system with him at the helm. He has made a career out of denigrating his opponents as subhuman crooks, hardly the habit of somebody willing to reconcile political differences and cool the passions roiling the country.
Political parties in Pakistan have repeatedly eroded the public’s trust and undermined democracy by making short-term, expedient compromises with the army. Pakistan has made democratic progress only when its politicians have united in defense of the constitution and placed the military on the back foot. If the country is to free itself from its persistent praetorianism, the generals will have to be convinced to return to the barracks, but in the meantime, political leaders must play the long game by adhering to democratic norms.
Khan’s party looks dead in the water. His dalliance with the military seems to be over, and his efforts to fashion himself as an antiestablishment hero have failed spectacularly as his party rapidly disintegrates. Loyalists in the judiciary may try to come to his rescue, but the courts are no match for a determined military.
Ironically, the supposedly pro-democracy PDM coalition has thrilled to the schadenfreude of Khan’s destruction by the military. Even before the current crisis, the future of democracy in Pakistan was hardly bright. But the civilian government’s collusion with the military has dashed the faint hope that democracy in the country had a fighting chance. For now, Pakistan appears headed toward a future that tragically mimics its past, in which democracy merely serves as a façade for unrelenting military domination.
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