December 5, 2022
IntelBrief: Pakistan Facing Significant Internal and Regional Challenges
Pakistani politics and regional dynamics are increasingly unsettled, more than six months after parliament ousted the immensely popular Prime Minister Imran Khan in a vote of no-confidence in April. Despite decades in politics, it is Khan’s career as a cricket player that propelled Pakistan to victory, and his subsequent work to provide cancer care in the country, that seals his place in the hearts of many Pakistanis. Seeking to keep Khan out of power are prominent figures aligned in a coalition that includes his immediate predecessor Nawaz Sharif, Sharif’s brother Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif (who replaced Khan as prime minister), and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, currently the Foreign Minister and leader of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), son of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband, ex-president Asif Ali Zardari. Despite his ouster, Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) remain highly popular, particularly among the many Pakistanis who blame the political establishment for the country’s seemingly intractable economic difficulties and rampant government corruption. In mid-October by-elections, Khan’s party won six out of the eight vacant parliamentary seats up for election; the PPP only won two.
Refusing to accept political defeat, Khan has demonstrated the ability to challenge his adversaries, including the country’s powerful military leadership that he blames for backing his ouster. The backing of the country’s powerful military establishment has often been seen as a precursor for political success and longevity in the country. Khan has attracted large numbers to rallies held as part of what he calls his "long march" on the capital city, Islamabad, to demand early elections before their scheduled time in late 2023. His supporters want Khan to return to office to strengthen the country’s beleaguered economy, weakened by global supply chain interruptions and recent major floods, and expose and tackle rampant corruption. Intent on denying him a comeback, in late October, Pakistan’s election commission – a body controlled by his political adversaries - barred Khan from office for five years, charging him with failing to accurately declare details of gifts he received and sold off while in office.
Claiming that the case against him was politically motivated, Khan has used the disqualification to fuel his rallies and demands for early elections. At one gathering on November 3, Khan was shot in the leg by an assailant who apparently is unaffiliated with any major political faction or radical Islamist group that operates inside Pakistan. On November 26, still suffering from his wounds, Khan mounted a large rally in Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad, to culminate his long march, during which he announced that his party was leaving all regional and national assemblies to distance itself from a "corrupt system." He also went on to blame some members of the military as part of the November 3 plot to kill him, and he made numerous allegations of official intimidation, harassment, and threats against himself and his supporters.
As part of their efforts to thwart Khan’s attempts at a comeback, his adversaries accelerated plans to appoint a new military chief, Lieutenant General Asim Munir, as Army Chief of Staff – the top military leadership post in the country. The military remains a powerful institution that has sometimes seized power directly and, at other times, has been a political kingmaker. Munir took charge of the 600,000-strong nuclear-armed army on November 29, upon General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s retirement after six years in the role. Earlier, Munir served for eight months as the head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the secretive military intelligence unit that serves as the key liaison to Afghanistan’s Taliban and jihadist militant groups in Pakistan. In 2019, during his term as prime minister, Khan removed Munir from his ISI post; however, Munir has since been promoted to a position where he can potentially retaliate against Khan by using the military’s political influence to block his return to power. Still, some analysts assess Munir as a professional soldier who will try to keep the institution largely separate from politics, and Khan has made no public objection – as some feared he might – to Munir’s appointment.
Pakistan’s foreign policy, including its troubled relationship with its former protégé, the Afghan Taliban, now in power in Kabul, provides a backdrop to the political turmoil. During his time as prime minister, Khan reportedly lost the support of Pakistan’s military partly because he obstructed a U.S. plan to re-establish intelligence and operational counterterrorism bases in Pakistan, to compensate for the closure of such facilities in Afghanistan after the U.S. military withdrawal. Then-military leader Bajwa opposed Khan’s position, asserting that Pakistan “share[s] a long and excellent strategic relationship with the U.S., which remains our largest export market.” Hoping to avoid further friction with Pakistan’s military, Khan has recently modified his position on relations with the United States. In a November 18 interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Khan stated that: “We have to move forward, and we have to have a new type of relationship with the U.S., which I've always said. Unfortunately, our relationships in the past have been very lopsided.” Still, U.S. officials assess that a return to power by Khan might again set back Washington’s relations with Islamabad and potentially interfere with U.S. regional counterterrorism operations. U.S. officials assess that, should Khan return to the premiership, he would continue to expand engagement with China, and possibly Russia as well, as he did when he was in office.
Beyond trying to outmaneuver Khan, Pakistan’s current leaders are also looking to Munir to accomplish key regional objectives. Munir previously served in Saudi Arabia, one of Pakistan’s key allies. His familiarity with the Saudi leadership might position Munir to enlist the Kingdom’s help in easing tensions with the Taliban leadership in Kabul. All factions in Pakistan assumed that the country’s harboring of the Taliban for two decades would pay handsome dividends when the movement returned to power upon the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021. Instead, however, the Afghan Taliban have extended support to their Pakistani comrades-in-arms, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who are continuing to conduct cross-border attacks into Pakistan. The Taliban-Pakistan tensions have sometimes escalated into clashes between their respective security personnel. In mid-November, a major border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan closed for trade and transit after a clash between security force personnel from both sides, resulting in the death of one Pakistani border guard. Yet, until the domestic political turmoil is resolved, it is difficult to envision any improvement in Pakistan’s relations with either the Taliban in Kabul or Pakistan’s historic rival, India, which continues to draw closer to the United States as part of several U.S.-backed strategic forums in the Indo-Pacific region.