October 3, 2023

IntelBrief: Pakistan Focuses on Domestic Turmoil and Avoids Geopolitical Conflict

AP Photo/Arshad Butt

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Pakistan’s military-backed political establishment is at odds with a population that largely desires democratically elected civilian rule.
  • The country’s ever-present terrorist threat is likely to intensify in the run-up to national elections, which were postponed to January 2024.
  • The difficulties facing Pakistan’s leaders could both aggravate and be aggravated by regional and geopolitical dynamics, particularly those concerning India, China, and the United States.
  • Pakistan’s leaders are resisting becoming drawn into the U.S. competition with China, which has historically backed Pakistan against Islamabad’s main adversary, India.

Pakistan is facing a difficult, although not necessarily unprecedented, period of domestic turmoil as popular, populist leaders struggle for power with established politicians backed by Pakistan’s military. The power struggle revolves around the fate of the populist former prime minister and head of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party (PTI), Imran Khan. Despite Khan’s popularity, particularly among the youth and other reform-minded segments of the population, the dynastic civilian political establishment, backed by the military, ousted Khan as prime minister in April 2022. Despite Khan’s ability to mobilize thousands of followers in street demonstrations, his opponents used a wide variety of court filings to sideline him from politics entirely. Earlier this year, at the behest of Khan’s opponents, authorities may have arrested more than thirteen thousand PTI activists and supporters, according to a former minister under Khan and a PTI official. A May report by Human Rights Watch suggests those numbers may be closer to four thousand. Authorities intimidated others into leaving the party entirely – often threatening to charge them with fomenting terrorism. A media blackout prevents Khan’s name from being mentioned on television. The 70-year-old Khan remains incarcerated for corruption and is disqualified from running in the national elections that have been postponed from October to January because of the turmoil caused by the national power struggle.

A caretaker government led by Anwar ul-Haq Kakar, an ally of dynastic elites, was inaugurated in August and will remain in charge until the elections. However, many Pakistanis, particularly PTI supporters, question whether the elections can be free and fair while Pakistan’s most popular party has been suppressed by the military and the courts, and Khan himself is ineligible to compete. A wide range of polls show that Khan has a 60 percent approval rating, putting him far ahead of his competitors. Without Khan, the elections will be a contest primarily between two largely unpopular figures: former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Sharif is brother of three-time premier and Khan nemesis Nawaz Sharif. Zardari is the country’s former foreign minister, as well as the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former President Asif Zardari. Much of the population perceives that any establishment figure who becomes prime minister will resist substantial reform and keep in place the entrenched corrupt political and economic system that has plagued Pakistan since its independence nearly 80 years ago. No matter who is elected, the prospects for extricating Pakistan’s powerful military from politics are slim. The military has often intervened in Pakistani politics, sometimes stepping in to rule directly. Recent top military leaders serving as Chief of Army Staff have reneged on pledges to keep the military out of politics when civilian leaders threaten their interests.

Further complicating Pakistani politics is the country’s ever-present threat of terrorist and other violent attacks. Several Islamist organizations operate inside Pakistan, some of which were tacitly backed by the government to undermine India’s control of most of the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir. In addition, separatists in the southwestern territories of Balochistan often use violence against government targets. Suicide blasts in the southwestern city of Mastung killed at least 60 during a religious procession on September 29, according to leaders in the province. Hours later, a separate attack on a mosque near Peshawar city in the country’s northwest killed at least four and injured eleven. Baloch separatists have long been restive over what they say is the state’s monopoly and exploitation of the region’s mineral resources. In August, an attack on Chinese engineers in Balochistan was thwarted by Pakistan’s military, leaving two militants dead and the Chinese workers unharmed. While the Balochistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the August attack, no group has claimed responsibility for either of the September 29 explosions.

Peshawar, which served as the staging ground for the CIA-led assistance program for the Afghan mujahedin during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, continues to host representatives of numerous Islamist organizations. Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), ISIS’ Afghanistan branch, has conducted attacks against politicians and other targets in the province, and experts expect to see similar attacks in the run-up to the January general elections. An escalation of terrorist attacks is sure to further strain Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which has tacitly allowed its brother movement, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to conduct attacks in Pakistan from locations just inside its borders.

Compounding Pakistan’s domestic political turmoil, various international powers are vying for Pakistan’s allegiance in their geopolitical struggles while avoiding firm commitments to its security or economic prosperity. While caretaker Prime Minister Kakar told the UN General Assembly last month that “the world cannot afford Cold War 2.0,” many Pakistani governments have professed geopolitical neutrality only to decide that supporting, and being supported by, great powers was necessary to further the country’s interests. Even though Pakistan is designated as a major non-NATO U.S. ally, Kakar has said that he sees China as his country’s “all-weather friend” and “strategic partner.” China is a significant investor in Pakistan and, unlike the Western governments that Pakistan depends on to approve loans from international and multilateral financial institutions, China does not condition its support on adherence to democratic norms. For China, supporting Pakistan helps strategically encircle and outflank India, a historic rival of Beijing, despite efforts by both Chinese and Indian leaders to maintain cordial diplomatic and robust trade relations. Pakistan has always been wary of Russia, which arms and has been politically close to India since the Soviet Union was formed. During his term as prime minister, Khan nonetheless received significant Western criticism for his decision to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of his invasion of Ukraine.

Though they may resent Washington’s human rights, democracy, and rule of law demands, Pakistan leaders of all stripes do not want to risk alienating the United States by declaring unwavering loyalty to either China or Russia. Doing so would further fuel Washington’s increasingly close relations with New Delhi. Some Pakistani leaders argue that Khan risked damaging U.S.-Pakistani relations by blaming Washington for his removal as prime minister in 2022. Over the summer, The Intercept reported, based on classified Pakistani government communications, that U.S. officials warned Pakistani counterparts that their government might be isolated by the West if a no-confidence vote against Khan did not succeed. Apparently seeking to rebuild the relationship with U.S. leaders, Pakistan’s post-Khan leaders reportedly covertly supplied needed munitions to the Ukrainian army. Alternatively, some outlets have reported that the United Kingdom facilitated transfers of Pakistani arms to Ukraine after they were sold to third countries. Some experts attribute that covert aid to Pakistan’s need for U.S. help obtaining a $3 billion International Monetary Fund loan package – vital to stabilizing Pakistan’s virtually collapsed economy – which was approved in July.  As long as the United States and its allies can deliver tangible economic benefits to the Pakistani electorate, no leader in Islamabad is likely to risk the country’s ties to Washington.