Pakistan: a Dangerous Uncertainty


Relations between the Pakistani government and the military have been tense recently, even resulting in rumours of an impending military coup. A coup is not very likely at this stage, but the situation has created the environment for at least one new political actor to emerge and gain popular support.

With relations between Pakistan’s civilian government and military incredibly tense, speculation is rife in the Pakistani and international media of a looming military takeover. The military is allegedly buoyed by support of the Supreme Court and the country’s business and political elite. However, the nature of events is changing at such a fast pace that it is difficult to predict the future.

The tenuous relationship between the government and the military appears to have finally eased somewhat since the government markedly toned down its anti-military rhetoric. Indeed, Prime Minster Yousuf Raza Gilani has extended an olive branch of sorts to the military. He had previously accused Army Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and the head of Pakistan’s principal intelligence agency, Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, of acting unconstitutionally when they expressed their alleged disapproval of the government. Just before Gilani left for the World Economic Forum in Davos in the middle of February, he attempted to smooth over the difficulties with his comment that he wanted to ‘dispel the impression that the military leadership acted unconstitutionally or violated rules… The current situation cannot afford conflict among the institutions.’

Tensions between these institutions reached a tipping point on 11 January 2012 when the prime minister had alleged that the Pakistan Army and its intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had been unlawfully interfering in a controversial court case involving the government. This amounted to accusing the heads of the army of defying the constitution and the democratically-elected government. The military was quick to warn of ‘very serious ramifications’ and ‘grievous consequences’ if the government continued its confrontational posturing. The warning fuelled rumours that the army was planning a coup to force the four year-old PPP-led coalition from office. Later that day, Gilani found himself on the receiving end of the army’s ire when he sacked the defence secretary, Retired-General Khalid Naeem Lodhi, a confidante of Pakistan’s Chief of Armed Services, General Kayani. The person holding the pivotal defence secretary position acts as the liaison between the military and the government.

Lodhi’s dismissal stemmed from his support of the military in the ‘memo-gate’ case. This court case revolves around the scandal that emerged from a memo allegedly sent to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in the aftermath of the raid in May 2011 by American forces on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. The memo sought the help of the US government to topple the military leadership and to replace it with people more compliant with US designs. While the authenticity of the memo remains uncertain, for the already volatile political landscape of Pakistan the implications of its revelation were explosive. Since the memo had been made public, the government has been under fire, resulting in a petition filed in the Supreme Court.

The resulting crisis saw the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government trying to deal with the matter through a parliamentary committee. However, the leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) filed a petition at the Supreme Court, which then claimed jurisdiction over the matter, side-stepping the parliamentary committee. The court enjoys the full support of the army leadership, and Kayani and Pasha have both filed briefs supporting the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. The military’s indignation is rooted in its belief that the memo was treasonous and that that it will dent the morale of the armed forces.

Gilani’s recent retraction of his anti-military statements in January came on the heels of another very public war of words, this one between the PPP government and the Supreme Court. Regarding the public spat with the army, Gilani claimed his comments had been misinterpreted as he had meant to target only ‘certain functionaries’. This stance convinced no one. There is speculation that Gilani’s backtracking resulted from a secret deal between the government and the army, agreed to in a closed-door meeting between Gilani, Kayani, and Pasha. Such a scenario is not unlikely, considering the unencumbered control the military continues to enjoy over national security, foreign policy and relations with the US.

Scattered reports regarding the alleged secret deal surprised observers who have monitored long-standing tensions between the military leadership and the PPP-led government. The Supreme Court, while toning down its confrontation with PPP leaders, has not withdrawn its cases against the government. Apart from memo-gate, the court is also presiding over a case that will likely order the government to reopen corruption cases pertaining to Swiss accounts held by PPP co-chairman Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari. The court indicted Gilani, and his contempt of court trial – which has overshadowed the memo-gate scandal – will play out over the next few weeks.

Pakistan’s political turmoil comes amidst the population’s worsening socio-economic conditions. Extreme inequality and poverty reflect the endemic corruption of, and catastrophic social policies pursued by, Pakistan’s rulers. Elite cronyism and patronage systems pervade every social, economic, and political aspect of Pakistani life.

The three tiers of the state – the executive, legislature and judiciary – are steeped in corruption and malfeasance. A central problem regarding the crisis scenario being probed by the Supreme Court is that it obscures several other important problems besetting the country. One striking oversight seems to be the judiciary’s indifference towards the army’s role in the memo-gate case, as the memo contains clear accusations regarding the army’s intentions to subvert government authority and derail the democratic process. There is an increasingly prevalent view in the country that the court is dispensing selective justice which is indicative of the deeper power struggles within the state.

Furthermore, the Pakistani police and security forces are rarely perceived to protect the rights of people and the rule of law; indeed, their corruption and torture tactics are notorious and deeply feared by the population. While the media focuses on high-profile show trials, the majority of Pakistanis do not have access to basic necessities, leading to public frustration reaching extraordinary levels. The middle class is shrinking due to rising inflation and the global economic recession and corruption by the PPP is generating tremendous popular anger.

American Pressure

At the heart of the mass dissatisfaction is the US-Pakistan relationship that most Pakistanis regard as neo-colonial. There is a widespread sense that Pakistan’s relationship with the United States has not served Pakistani interests and is responsible for a great deal of the current problems, including the suffocating political role of the military due to US support for various military regimes. This has led to a heightened anti-Americanism, particularly since the US invasion of Afghanistan and the expansion of the war, with drone attacks and US special-forces raids, into Pakistan. Nevertheless, the Pakistani elite seems reluctant completely to cut ties with the US because the relationship has been the bedrock of Pakistani rulers’ geopolitical interests.

But increased American pressure on Pakistan to ‘do more’ against terrorism, coupled with mass opposition to US foreign policy, have persuaded the army to ensure it exercises untrammelled control over Pakistan’s relations with Washington – at the expense of the civilian government. The Pakistani elite fears the current government lacks the legitimacy and ability to institute economic restructuring needed to win the confidence of the International Monetary Fund and foreign investors. Furthermore, the elite seems exasperated by the government’s monopoly over corruption and patronage. This is a chronic disposition amongst Pakistan’s oligarchs who feel that when a government is ‘too corrupt’ its appetites need to be tamed and other elites need to retrieve their ‘fair share’ of the pie.

It should be remembered that the PPP did not wholeheartedly back the 2007 mass protests against then-president Pervez Musharraf, because its former leader, Benazir Bhutto, felt the popular feeling of discontent would escape the party’s control. This prompted the PPP to instead approach US President George W. Bush directly to convince him that the PPP would be a more suitable ally in his ‘War on Terror’.

Since assuming power, the PPP has bent over backwards to please Washington, proving it was more pliant to US demands than the military or any other political party. However, the US continued to regard the military as the central player in Pakistani politics, with US officials talking exclusively to the military top brass in major strategic discussions.

Clearly, both the civilian government and the military high command would like to re-establish cordial relations with the US. For the past six decades the alliance with the US has been the cornerstone of the Pakistani national security establishment’s geopolitical strategy. This strategy has, however, been undermined by mass antagonism to US ‘Af-Pak’ policies. The deteriorating ties between the government and the army have also acted as an obstacle for a united Pakistani foreign policy.

Drone war

As Pakistan wallows in perennial uncertainty, the US continues to launch drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The recent resumption of attacks comes after the November NATO strike on a Pakistani military check-post which killed twenty-six soldiers. Following the uproar in Pakistan, the Pentagon conceded that errors had been made, yet justified the attack as ‘self-defence’. The Obama administration’s failure to specify who was being targeted by the drones highlighted that Pakistani sovereignty was irrelevant to US-NATO geo-strategic objectives.

Drone attacks resumed after The New York Times published a report in December claiming that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, among other insurgent groups, had been bolstered by the halt in US drone strikes. The article concluded that the hiatus allowed for a coalition between the Taliban and sympathetic militias in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Furthermore, it was claimed, the break had opened the door for a deal between the Taliban and the Pakistani government.

This NYT article – and the larger imperial discourse it fed into – acted as the pretext for the US military establishment to by-pass the Obama administration, which was attempting to rebuild trust with Islamabad, and push its military agenda.

While the US continues to justify drone attacks as an efficient way of eliminating ‘terrorists’, the human cost of the strikes is barely recognised. Hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent villagers have lost their lives in these assaults. The rate and intensity of the attacks can be gleaned from a report by the pro-US ‘Long War’ website, which conservatively estimated that US forces carried out more than 180 drone missile attacks in Pakistan in 2010 and 2011.

In the short term, it seems likely that there will be continuity in Pakistani state policy – maintaining a public posture of vocally asserting Pakistani sovereignty while strengthening the alliance with the US. While organs of the Pakistani state continue vigorously to denounce drone attacks in public, the Pakistani military and civilian elites have consented to, and sometimes even requested, these strikes.

Foreign influences

The dominant foreign influence in Pakistan is that of the US which is focused on expanding its hegemony in Central, West, and South-west Asia and in containing the influence of rivals such as China, Russia, and Iran. Washington has successfully retained Pakistan in its geo-strategic orbit, showering it with billions of dollars to enlist the Pakistani military in America’s ‘Af-Pak’ theatre of its ‘War on Terror’. However, US indifference to the Pakistani state’s own geo-strategic interests has produced unfavourable results with regard to combating and curtailing terrorism, and establishing western control and stability in Afghanistan. Indeed, there has been destabilisation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan due to the policies and approach Washington has pursued since is invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The influence on Pakistan of political developments and political actors in Afghanistan cannot be underestimated. Ever since the US-led war in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been a pivotal player because of its age-old relationship and involvement with its western neighbour. Furthermore, a significant consequence of the decade-long war was that it regenerated the long-standing tribal and kinship ties of the Pashtun people along both sides of the artificial Durand Line – the British-imposed border that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan. This has compelled many Pashtuns, who feel disenfranchised in Afghanistan despite comprising sixty percent of the population, to flee across the border into Pakistan. Washington and its NATO allies, along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, have accused these Afghan Pashtuns of joining forces with their Pakistani Pashtun brethren, and of being primarily responsible for the resistance to foreign occupation.

Al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain important actors of global significance. The latter have recently been closely monitored by the Pakistani security establishment due to the emergence of its new Pakistani component, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Al-Qaeda is a marginal force and capitalises on the support that the resurgent Taliban receives from an Afghan (and Pakistani) population increasingly disgusted by western occupation and meddling.

A role-player not to be forgotten is Pakistan’s long-standing foe and eastern neighbour – India. While Pakistan did make a significant shift in its policy of low intensity conflict that entailed supporting and arming non-state actors fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, it is still accused of supporting ‘cross-border terrorism’ in India – the most recent being the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008. The Pakistani political establishment firmly believes that India, now a partner of the US, is trying to weaken and destabilise Pakistan by expanding Indian economic and strategic influence in Afghanistan, and by supporting non-state actors inside Pakistan who are engaged in anti-state violence – especially in the province of Balochistan.

Other significant foreign influences in Pakistan include China and Saudi Arabia. China is an old Pakistani ally, and as the Pakistani military becomes frustrated with American heavy-handedness and political pressure, the Pakistani establishment increasingly looks to its alliance with China. Economic and strategic ties between Pakistan and China have greatly expanded over the past year. Saudi Arabia has always served as a useful intermediary between Pakistan and the US – at least since the Afghan ‘jihad’ against the Soviet Union in the 1980s – and the Saudis continue to have considerable influence on Pakistani civilian and military authorities. The Saudi monarchy often mediates and resolves conflicts within the Pakistani elite.

Pakistani nuclear project and security concerns

As might be expected, Pakistan’s nuclear programme is shrouded in secrecy for national security reasons. It has, therefore, always been a difficult task to speculate on the size and nature of control mechanisms over the nuclear programme. On the whole, however, serious and credible experts are convinced that the programme is safe ,secure and firmly under the close watch of the military high command. Indeed, this is what former President Musharraf asserted whenever the US raised concerns. Western governments and think tanks, however, constantly raise concerns about the infiltration of the intelligence services and the army by extremist elements, and predict how these ‘rogue’ individuals may capture Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

The government and military officials firmly maintain that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are secure because of rigorous background checks and continuous monitoring of personnel ‘for extremist sympathies’, and continually stress the military’s scrupulous approach and careful monitoring in this regard.

Nevertheless, The Atlantic and the National Journal, in a recent joint report that cited unnamed sources, asserted that the May 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden had renewed the fears of sections of the Pakistani establishment that the US planned to dismantle Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. This fear ostensibly has made the weapons more vulnerable as the Pakistani authorities would, according to the claim, be inclined to disperse the weapons stockpile to keep its location hidden. ‘Instead of transporting the nuclear parts in armoured, well-defended convoys,’ the report asserted, ‘the atomic bombs capable of destroying entire cities are transported in delivery vans on congested and dangerous roads.’

Pakistani authorities dismiss the assertions in this and similar reports. But repeated concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons indicate 1) propaganda pressure tactics, or 2) a genuine belief by western powers that the programme is unsafe. Analysts, however, note that it is western intervention that creates the conditions of instability that could place the weapons at the risk of ‘falling into the wrong hands’. Such an eventuality will occur only in the event of serious, irreconcilable fissures within the military high command and officer corps – something which has not yet happened.

Volatile politics

The popularity of the PPP government has plummeted in the past year with persistent accusations of corruption, failure to remedy systemic economic woes and the resurgence of a politicised civil society. Besieged from all sides, the government is struggling to complete its five-year term and speculation is rife about an early election. Opposition parties are gaining ground by tapping into the mass resentment. The leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – and charismatic former captain of Pakistan’s cricket team, Imran Khan, has held several massive rallies and is emerging as a serious political contender in the upcoming general elections. One of his core platforms is uncompromising opposition to the US ‘War on Terror’. Khan’s position against American policies in the region and in Pakistan specifically, as well as his strong advocacy for national policies that advance greater social and economic justice in the country, has made him the most popular political figure in Pakistan.

The traditional opposition to the PPP is found in ethnic- and religious-based parties. The Pakistani elite, while occasionally patronising this opposition, feels it is neither adequately equipped to ride the storm of IMF austerity measures currently dogging Pakistan’s economy nor to ensure stability in the country. There is now a view that the establishment-elite is giving tacit support to Khan’s political campaign.

Concern over Pakistan’s vulnerable economy coupled with a deteriorating balance of payments situation makes the country a prime candidate for a fresh loan. With a budget deficit estimated at seven percent of the GDP and with an inflation rate of twelve percent, the lax monetary policy of the State Bank of Pakistan has been severely criticised by the IMF which would like to make new loans conditional on stipulations that include a tax increase. Since the government reneged on the loan agreement negotiated in 2008, the IMF has not resumed loan instalments even in the face of the humanitarian crisis that followed the floods of 2010 and 2011. Moreover, the US has displayed an unwillingness to leverage the IMF in loan negotiations due to weakened Pakistan-US relations. Plans to appease the US include promises to reopen the US-NATO supply route from Pakistan to Afghanistan – which was effectively shut down after the November US attack.

For several decades the elite had called on the Pakistan Army to stabilise the country’s political situation. However, there is now reluctance to resort to military intervention and thus derail the democratic dispensation. The military suffers from a credibility deficit as it was ousted from direct rule via a popular movement only four years ago.

Owing to the mercurial nature of Pakistani politics, even the most prudent analysts are wary of ruling out any option. As a ‘senior US official’ posited in a Reuters report, ‘Things have calmed down in the last week or so… but this is Pakistan. Any of the players could do something unexpected.’ This assessment ignores the destabilising impact of the Pakistan-US relationship which culminated in the US forcing Pakistan to ‘do more’ in the ‘War on terror’, thus ravaging the north-west Pashtun-speaking tribal areas in a bid to root out Taliban-aligned militias, and pushing Washington’s neo-liberal policies through support for IMF restructuring.


The current deadlock between the government on the one hand and the Supreme Court and the army on the other reflects a wider, recurring trend in Pakistani politics. While the faces might change, the issues being debated and the powerful interests at stake tend to remain fairly constant.

Power struggles and fissures in leadership have been a perennial feature of the Pakistani state since independence. However, this dynamic has become exponentially dangerous in the face of ever-widening social and economic gaps between the ruling elite and the population. In the wake of new global political realities following the Middle East-North Africa uprisings, the Pakistani elite has become paralysed with fear of the growing discontent emerging from a myriad issues ranging from the ‘War on terror’ to economic instability and the disintegration of public infrastructure.

In an incredibly brazen acknowledgement, US President Barack Obama for the first time recently declared what had already been common knowledge in Pakistan: the US conducts drone strikes inside the country. Such a proclamation demonstrates callous disregard for the wishes of the Pakistani people and utter indifference to both the sovereignty and interests of the Pakistani state. Whether Obama has brought ‘change’ to America is uncertain. But as far as most Pakistanis are concerned, he certainly has brought change to Pakistan – for the worse.

Junaid S. Ahmed teaches in the Faculty of Law and Policy at the Lahore University for Management Sciences, Lahore, Pakistan.

This article was originally published by Afro-Middle East Centre Insights.