After a spring marred by yet another political crisis and a summer marked by the upheavals caused by a change in administration and flash floods, a similarly troubled and uncertain twilight of 2022 seems to loom over the 240 million Pakistanis and the overheated Islamic Republic. A really unconventional method of commemorating the nation’s 75th anniversary.
In recent days, the world’s fifth-most populous nation has not exactly received reassuring reports on its already dubious internal stability. Let us evaluate the recent past: Monday, November 28, the “leadership” of the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP) issued a statement announcing the end of a ceasefire with the government and urging its radical troops to immediately descend into terror and chaos again, stating, “As military operations are ongoing against the mujahedeen in different regions, so it is imperative on you to carry out attacks wherever you can, throughout the country.” This a conclusion that is scarcely surprising given the relatively limited authority of this ceasefire during the previous six months, in which the number of attacks attributable to the TTP remained unusually high for a truce.
Observers will have noted that the timing of this declaration by the Pakistani Taliban was anything but coincidental. For the first time in 17 years, an English team was once again invited to participate in a series of test matches in this cricket-crazy nation. And four days earlier, on November 24 2022, Pakistani authorities announced the long-awaited appointment of the new and 17th COAS since 1947, the apex of authority – all dimensions combined – in this federal republic that is nominally being run by a civil administration. This a significant occurrence to which we shall return later for additional information.
As expected, the TTP terrorists responded swiftly to their leaders’ “call for blood”: on November 30 2022, in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, a suicide attack targeting a police truck and claimed by the Taliban killed three people – a police officer and two civilians – and injured around twenty.
Towards early elections
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif was quick to denounce and investigate the attack. Notably, the day after the termination of the truce was announced, the head of government dispatched his head of diplomacy, Hina Rabbani Kar, to Kabul to speak with his Afghan “counterpart.” It is something more than a coincidence that the TTP terrorists have long sought asylum – and a rear camp – on Afghan territory, especially now that Afghanistan is once again governed by a Taliban regime sympathetic to their cause.
As for the political landscape, which is similarly characterised by chaos and high fever, it cannot be stated that it has profited from any ceasefire in recent days; far from it.
On Sunday, November 27, 2022, three weeks after a failed assassination attempt (gunshot wound to the leg), Imran Khan was back with his followers. They were 25,000 to 30,000 participants in Rawalpindi (neighbouring city of the capital Islamabad and headquarters of the omnipotent Pakistan Army) in a rally intended to galvanise its troops in the pursuit of their anti-government defiance, as well as to weigh again on the authority of his rival Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) successor Shehbaz Sharif; and in particular to urge the latter to call early national elections. Imran Khan and his political organisation PTI stated:-
“I have seen death up close. I am more worried about Pakistan’s freedom than my life. I will fight for this country until my last drop of blood”, launched in his customary theatrical style the former head of government to a feverish crowd, this time well protected behind a very impressive security setup combining physical guards, vehicle with armoured windows, snipers scattered on the roofs; accompanied by a very substantial deployment of police forces and anti-riot units- 10,000 men in uniform according to the Pakistani press of November 27 2022.
Having harangued his troops and energised his followers on the next stages of his roadmap – and after having wisely given up trying to invest in Islamabad, which was literally under siege for the occasion, the former jet-setter announced the colour to the Pakistani authorities: the plan to dissolve the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assemblies. This a grave threat that, if adopted, will inevitably exacerbate the current crisis and further destabilise the nation’s political and institutional ecosystem, which is currently in a state of near-chaos. And in which the Sharif administration would certainly struggle to float a few fathoms, being now closer to a political shipwreck than a long-distance trip.
In a position of strength less than half a year after being forcibly removed from office and convinced that the political history of the country will be written in red and green – the colours of his party, the PTI – in the near future, Mr. Zardari asserted: The former cricket captain’s optimism is tinted with a degree of restraint, if not outright prudence, as he is buoyed by uncommon confidence and ego, both of which are valuable but often unconvincing reasons in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
In accordance with the Constitution, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif named Lieutenant-General Asim Munir as the new army head on November 24, 2022, for a three-year term. Recently, Asim Munir served as the chief of military intelligence and subsequently as the head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the secret services with a reputation for behaving as a state within a state. His nomination-a delicate and strategic manoeuvre in this turbulent South Asian nation where a civilian administration can never afford anything without disturbing the military-follows weeks of speculation and talks over the selection of the sixth largest Army’s (640,000 lakhs) new chief.
In the context of the political crisis that the nation has been experiencing since the beginning of the year, analysts cruelly note that the new army chief, Imran Khan removed from his position as head of the ISI in 2019; politically, the two men were in opposition.
Therefore, the selection of Lieutenant-General Asim Munir is not a mere coincidence. Imran Khan also boldly accuses the generals of having a hand in his “resignation” earlier this year following the vote of no confidence in the spring. In fact, of the six generals and lieutenant generals on the list of officers eligible for the position of 17th army chief, the appointment of Lieutenant-General Asim Munir could not have been more delicate; even more so when one aspires to return to power and the credit in the eyes of the very influential military institution is already quite tarnished – if not entirely lost.
On Wednesday, November 23, 2022, the outgoing army leader, General Qamar Jawed Bajwa, stated that the Pakistan Army and its generals would no longer intervene in national political affairs in the future to convince a large number of Pakistanis and foreign journalists. Without wishing to insult this military authority in any way, it will take more than a few hastily concocted remarks on this delicate matter to convince the Pakistanis and the international community. General Bajwa also deemed “false and untrue” Imran Khan’s claims that the Pakistani military and the United States were behind his spring coup.
Let’s stop for a moment at the profile of the new boss of the Pakistani Army. The press presents him, in particular, as the first “mullah general” to hold the position of COAS. “Mullah General” because Lieutenant-General Asim Munir is a devoted hardliner pro-fundamentalist Muslim. He claims to be “Hafiz-e-Quran,” a devout and erudite individual who “memorised the Quran.” In addition to his reputation for integrity, which editorial writers highlighted in Islamabad, this religious distinction in his curriculum vitae has raised some concerns within and outside India’s borders.
Diverse observers of extremely tumultuous Indo-Pakistani relations have advanced the hypothesis that a Pakistani army chief with a more religious profile than the majority of his peers may be inclined to rely – in the shadows – on a galaxy of radical entities and other terrorist structures in “connection” with the intelligence services in order to influence the Indian neighbour, particularly in the extremely volatile region of Kashmir and encourage infiltration of the pro-Khalistani elements raising their heads in Indian Punjab.
In any case, if Imran Khan were to return to power in Islamabad in the near future, he would be compelled to work with the new leader of the Pakistani armed forces, the man he forced to quit his position as head of the Pakistani ISI in 2019. If this complex political configuration were to materialise – a possibility that has acquired credence over the past several weeks – we wish the former Pakistani cricket captain great pleasure in overseeing the day-to-day management of national affairs and his numerous misdeeds (economic, security, social, humanitarian or diplomatic). A second term as Prime Minister would likely be a burden rather than a sinecure. Internal stability, the operation of institutions, and the 242 million Pakistanis who make up Pakistan.