The following first appeared on the Substack “Tadhg Pidgeon” and is syndicated with permission
The government of Pakistan is a poison chalice, yet Imran Khan marches on towards it.
Throughout and following this year’s constitutional crisis Khan has refused to take his ouster lying down at any stage. Instead of facing the vote of no-confidence which the opposition had pursued for years, the vote was blocked by the Speaker of Parliament who attempted to dissolve the institution and called for fresh election. This was overruled by the Supreme Court, allowing the no-confidence vote to be passed and subsequently leading to the appointment of the Pakistan Muslim League’s Shebhaz Sharif – the fiscally conservative scion of a dynasty that deals in both steel and politics.
It was not long before Imran Khan called for the rallying of his supporters in a mass march on the capital Islamabad, beginning in the city of Peshawar. Crowds could be seen flocking around Khan’s open-topped bus, waving the red-and-green flags of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (“Pakistan Movement for Justice” – PTI) – a party which claims to embody an ideology of Islamic Social Democracy and welfarism. The march culminated in days of inconclusive clashes with security forces, as the government declared the protest illegal prior to its reaching the capital, leading to scenes of raging crowds dissembling barricades on the Islamabad highways among the charges of riot police.
It seems as though the smoke has barely cleared from the roadblocks and Khan continues his offensive. As of last week a bombardment of loud declarations has been issued from him and his party, revolving heavily around what they intend to do to continue their drive towards power. Khan has signalled his intention to rally his supporters once more in the “biggest protest in Pakistan’s history”. He has also congratulated the success of the anti-corruption taskforce which he appointed, further reinforcing his self-proclaimed image as an anti-corruption crusader and further undermining the Sharif government, whose party and personal history is mired with murky stains.
On the flipside, loud warnings are being issued on the consequences, should Khan and the PTI be frustrated. Explicitly citing Pakistan’s perennial fear of balkanisation, he warns that should his demands for snap elections be ignored, he and his party persecuted, or even if Sharif’s government clings on too long, that the country faces collapse, turmoil, and possible splintering. One of the PTI’s lawmakers has even threatened a suicide attack should Imran Khan be harmed.
The Historical Arena.
Such chaos should not come as anything new. A cursory look over that Pakistan’s political history tells a story of perpetual motion and a constantly evasive stability. It has been ruled by the military for virtually half of its history, and the periods of military rule and democracy have both been mired by violence and turmoil. Virtually every leader who takes the reins of power is faced with irreconcilable problems, is criticised for the methods they try to apply, and seem to always be thrown out for their failure to solve the insolvable.
The very basis upon which Pakistan was founded seems to contain within it the seeds of its difficulties. This basis is something of negative one, given it was implemented on the demands of those Muslims in the British Raj who’s overarching concern was simply to not be in trapped in a majority Hindu state, thus bringing together a diverse set of regional identities with little to bond them besides Islam.
However, the same could be said of many other post-colonial nations, including neighbouring India, whose post-colonial experience appears to have been relatively more prosperous, unified, and certainly more politically stable. India was even more diverse than Pakistan, ethnically, religiously, and linguistically. And in other cases such as Iran we see that Islam can act as a highly effective unifier of an ethnically diverse state.
Pakistan’s chief difficulty was most arguably that their territory was considerably smaller and more resource-poor, not to mention divided out between west and east Pakistan (the former being today’s Bangladesh). Upon the 1947 partition, many believed that the state would face inevitable economic collapse, and would be forced to re-merge with India within a matter of months or years. Alongside this, the country also faced a military crisis in Kashmir immediately upon independence, meaning that a disproportionate amount of its scant resources had to be dedicated towards its military, setting a precedent for that institution’s role and power in the society. In this view, Pakistan’s survival has been an achievement in itself.
But above these handicaps, what really appears to be the key element which sealed this fate of instability was the failure of Pakistan’s early leadership to converge on a political vision for the country’s future. Unlike India, where the heirs of the Indian National Congress determinedly pursued an emulation of Britain’s parliamentary democratic tradition, Pakistan inherited Britain’s other colonial political legacy, the authoritarian and arbitrary legacy of the Viceroy. Following the death of Jinnah, it has been a revolving door of despots either military of demagogic. A quote from the Encyclopaedia Britannica captures the nature of it best;
“Constitutions in Pakistan have been less about limiting the power of authority and more a legal justification for arbitrary action.”
Faced with the power-vacuum of decolonisation, many states and nations faced a Tabula Raza of what governmental forms and regime-types they would create. In some cases such as China or the Arabic Monarchies, a consistent authoritarian regime was capable of consolidating itself and providing eventual prosperity. In other cases where there was instability, the instability itself seemed to have its own inherent predictability and pattern — e.g. Turkey or Thailand, with a Military-Officer class rallying around the ideals of Kemalism in the former case and around the Royal throne in the second, conducting coups and enforcing Juntas with an almost-seasonal regularity. In yet other cases of instability, it appears that ultimately one winner would eventually emerge to consolidate power, such as the Assads in Syria. Such winners also on occasion succeeded in implementing an ideological vision and power-structure which outlived them.
In Pakistani history none of these formulas apply. The military dictators repeatedly failed to use their power to implement any harsh reform or enact any drastic overhaul that leaves a lasting legacy of prosperity or normalcy. The elected politicians fail to maintain their popularity for any extended period of time, usually running afoul of the high bureaucracy and the army once their public support runs out, their policies fail, and the country once more devolving into violence.
Development and Islamism: The Geopolitical Trap.
There are two factors which buck this trend of inertia and hopelessness. One is the possibility of economic growth and development in Pakistan. Like many post-colonial nations, Pakistan’s rate of growth has been at an incredibly high average of roughly 6% per year since independence. The difficulty is that Pakistan’s population has kept track with this, meaning that wealth per person has not seen substantial improvement. And not only has this population growth been detrimental due to its unsustainably high levels, but as in many developing nations the state has struggled to keep pace in expanding its infrastructure to meet the new demand.
Quality of life and the overall prosperity of the country has been further damaged by numerous other factors, such as corruption, and a huge inequality in wealth leading to oligarchy. Among other oligarchic factions within the country one notable example is the cotton barons of the Indus river, who, in spite of land reform efforts, still remain a respectable force in Pakistani politics, in many ways continuing to lead a virtually feudal existence unchanged since the age of the Mughals.
Corruption, oligarchy, and political instability and division further hamstring any government which would aspire to a far-seeing programme of development and technological modernisation in the country. As such, Pakistan’s governments are heavily reliant on foreign aid to make up the difference.
In Pakistani history an ideological force with strong moral force also appears conspicuously absent, at least one with mass appeal. Its post-colonial power struggles lack the litany of battles between its own equivalents of revolutionary socialists, Nasserists, or Ba’athists. The sole exception to this, for better or for worse, is Political Islam — ranging from more moderate and mainstream forms reminiscent of Erdoğan to the fringe extremes of ISIS.
As an ideal with serious political clout, Political Islam or Islamism came into prominence during the 1970s rule of General Zia ul-Haq, who tried to implement an Islamisation programme to reform Pakistan and to give it some lasting administrative structure. This idea has left some legacy in spite of Zia’s death in an aircraft explosion in 1988, the causes of which have yet to be fully determined. The flood of Gulf State money into the country has included the patronage of Islamist factions and fundamentalist Madrasas, alongside a concurrent rise in Salafism, and has ensured Political Islam’s survival and galvanisation. Ultimately, given that Pakistan was founded on the basis of its Islamic identity, Islamism seems like the most natural political ideology which can act as a unifying force there.
However the combination of these two factors leads any executive of Pakistan into a situation where they are trapped between two irreconcilable forces. Above them is the international community, on whom they rely for the financial support they need to bridge their financial and economic gaps. But below are the masses whom they rely on for political support.
As Angela Nagle writes in a recent piece, moral confidence is the power of the otherwise powerless, creating the resources and energy to effect political change where otherwise there is none, be it financial backing or even simple physical force. Could a morally energised political movement be the potential force needed to restructure and unify Pakistan, such that foreign aid is no longer needed and inter-ethnic violence ceases to be source of instability?
However, to date it has not been possible for Islamism to be this force, as it is clearly unacceptable to the Western Powers, most especially the United States, who have predominated over the international community and its institutions. Islamism tends to receive a blind eye from the West when practiced by the Gulf States, but in cynical terms Pakistan lacks the hydrocarbon monopolies necessary for this selective blindness, and more obviously its Islamist movements are far too intricately tied to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other Afghan insurgents with whom NATO was at war. The repression of Islamist elements has therefore come as a standard and expectable price tag for the financial support Pakistan needs from the West.
However, if the choice is to suppress Islamism at home in order to avoid bankruptcy, this too is a poor choice for the leadership of Pakistan. Indeed, when combined with the perceived savagery of the US war in Afghanistan, such attempts to conform to Western demands were, among other things, the undoing of the Musharraf and Zardari governments. In the eyes of many Conservative Pakistani Muslims the Taliban were freedom fighters struggling against hostile foreign occupiers, in a struggle little changed from days of the Soviet occupation. And in the same eyes, their own leaders appeared as the quisling puppets of those powers whose mission appears to be the persecution of Islam.
Imran Khan’s Long March?
In the wake of Khan’s May protests, one of the more striking comments was a supporter’s tweet which compared it to Mao’s Long March. While certainly hyperbolic as an analogy, the association does draw on several factors which are pertinent to Pakistan’s situation and Khan’s potential role within it.
The broadest Umbrella under which to describe the situation is simply the rise of multipolarity. Put more concretely and specifically it consists of previously Third-World economies developing to a point where they are increasingly invulnerable to the economic pressures of the liberal West. It consists of nation states which pursue this end by exerting their political power over their economies, such as China, Iran, and Russia to achieve a level of relative autarchy. And lastly it involves the simple willingness to utilise this political power and its accompanying economic independence against other nation states — on the low end to simply pursue their own economic development, even if it’s to other nations’ detriment, on the extreme it is utilising their relative autarchy and economic strength to support military aggression and outright invasion.
The end result is what Mearsheimer might describe as a battle between those who geopolitically operate with 19th Century mindsets, rising to challenge those who think in the 21st. Bloody-minded Mercantilism, physical force, and balance of power operating against global free trade, dialogue, and a multilateral rules-based order. The final product is akin to foxes being unleashed in a hen house.
For Pakistan the fall of Afghanistan and the rise of China are the two principal events that are dictating the course of events. Both are indicative of the retreat of the United States in particular, and the West as a whole.
What this means is that the old dilemma of funding or Islamism is now retreating as new sources of capital open up. Chinese investment into Pakistan has already resulted in substantial loans and infrastructure projects as a part of the Belt and Road initiative. Although China’s willingness to continue funding a more explicitly ideological Islamist state may be constrained in light of its persecution of its Uyghur minority, a combination of remnant Maoist third-worldism and a cynical drive to undercut western influence by-any-means-necessary should not be underestimated.
Furthermore, with fossil fuel sanctions on Russia coming into place, Western dependency on Gulf State oil grants them ever-more free reign as to how they wish to conduct their foreign policy. Their investment into Pakistan is already considerable, yet the prospects of investing in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan are more lucrative yet. Besides the business gained from reconstruction and the enormous potential mineral wealth of the newly born Emirate, there is also the potential to outflank Iran, a key advantage in the post-American power struggle for the Middle East. To Afghanistan, Pakistan could act as a key bridge and route of access for the Gulf States, a role which certainly not be hurt by Imran Khan’s ethnic Pashtun background, should he be premier at that time.
Besides these factors which act as a pull away from Pakistan’s historical relations with the United States, there is the also the push. The key weapon in Khan’s arsenal of political rhetoric has been the accusation that an American conspiracy has put the current Sharif government into power. The veracity of this accusation is tenuous, and Khan himself has yet to substantiate it, yet its believability for many Pakistanis belies the tensions that have developed between the countries, especially the unpopularity of the US among a substantial segment of Pakistanis.
As mentioned, the view of the Pakistani political elite — whether bureaucratic, establishment politicians and their parties, or the military — as being puppets for the U.S. is already well established as a consequence of the governments of the early 2000s and 2010s. From drone strikes on Pakistani soil, the American raid on that killed Bin Laden, to the killing of innocent Pakistanis by CIA contractor Raymond Davis, distrust in America has been smouldering in Pakistan for decades.
More recently there was even speculation that the unification of Balochistani partisan groups and their renewed offensive against the state was also a product of covert U.S. operations, since some of the principal targets included Chinese infrastructure projects in that province. But again, this is largely speculation.
Imran Khan, playboy cricketeer turned populist demagogue, has a strong set of cards to play. Anti-American, anti-corruption, anti-elite, and unlike his predecessors able to appeal to the possibility of new multipolar order. A vision of national developmentalism, driven by a Political Islamic vision, funded by a multiplicity of potential non-Western sources is simply too a good a fit for the PTI.
However, with the consolidation of many authoritarian regimes and their increasing willingness to enact violent crackdowns, it appears that the era of peaceful, people-powered, colour revolution style of government change is very much over. However, since the current government that ousted Khan did so by appealing to the current constitutional order, it may prove difficult for them to repress the PTI with the same resolve and extra-constitutional means that a junta or a dictator might avail of.
In addition to this, the elites and power-centres of Pakistan are multiple, diffuse, and far from alignment with one and other. For instance, the military and security forces are not a uniform body, no pun intended. The fact that that the Pakistani Military has historically utilised Islamist terrorist groups to further their cause in Kashmir, that the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by a radicalised member of his own security detail in 2011, or that Bin Laden’s compound was located with conspicuous proximity to a military base, all these raise questions about the apathy or susceptibility of the Pakistani Military to Islamism, or even the existence of an Islamist faction within its ranks.
Going forward, some acceptance of Khan, or more accurately the forces he represents, may be the only feasible way for the West to maintain and develop a better alliance with Pakistan. It is not impossible, but it is not likely either. Neither he nor his politics will become palatable to the US or the West anytime soon. Furthermore, the re-entrenching of Western relations with Modi’s India as a counter-weight to China has likely already precluded western rapprochement with Pakistan to begin with.
Ultimately whether Imran Khan succeeds in his gambit or not is irrelevant. Should he fail the forces to which he is responding will draw up another demagogue to take his place. Either that, or Pakistan really will succumb to the forces which threaten to fracture it.