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Pakistan Has Changed Its Game; But For How Long?

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By: Arindam Mukherjee
Updated: September 9, 2022 16:59
One might be tempted to think that the Imran-Bajwa
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While geological tectonic shifts happen over millions of years, geopolitical shifts – especially nowadays – happen over months; and sometimes over weeks! Pakistan remains the best example of that. It is an extra that, any shift in crucial geography like Pakistan affects the different geopolitical equations in the south and central Asia.

CPEC issues are spilling over and affecting relationship

With China venturing into Pakistan with their CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), there was a hint of concern among a few of us back in 2015-16 that CPEC was a costly mistake for China and a bane for a free agent like Pakistan. That concern has eventually come to pass. China, over time, has started showing signs that it is upset about the increasing terror attacks on its citizens and workers working in the different CPEC allied projects around Pakistan, and the low standards of ‘foolproof security’ promised by Pakistan Army. While Pakistan (read Army) is upset because China is not altering the terms of the loan, not rescheduling credits, and perhaps not considering Pakistan as an ‘all-weather-ally’, but as another Sri Lanka. These signs are translating into a plethora of events and incidents that are already showing results of affecting the overall viability of the project; with USD 60 billion between them, CPEC is gradually turning out to be a costly feud.

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Pakistan Army is again clashing with politicians

With Imran Khan literally being the Army’s ‘candidate’, a lot of us had thought that at least he would be allowed a full term. But he was dumped over an appointment in ISI. That marked yet another instance in Pakistan’s political history where the Army traditionally booted out an elected leader from power. One might be tempted to think that the Imran-Bajwa clash is about ego and territory marking, but the fact is that this is reflective of a bigger concern. Imran Khan was getting perilously close to significantly damaging Pakistan’s traditional ties with the West. His fundamentalist views and proximity to Islamists that abhor the West, his closing up to Russia, and his constant refusal to engage with a single Western leader, are all cases in point. Add to that the fact that for Pakistan to fully maximize CPEC investments and to be able to pay back its Chinese debts, they had to cascade massive structural reforms; reforms that were quite impossible given the pre-industrial and feudal nature of the country. And Imran Khan was very successful in communicating to the masses that he was assigned a bad team, and was not being allowed to weed out the corruption – indicating that it was the Army that had him tied.

And as it has been with the Pakistan Army, they interpreted these signs as Imran trying to weaken their hold on the nation.

Pakistan Army narrative has shifted too

With Imran gone now, the ties between Pakistan Army and the West are limping back. Nadeem Anjum of ISI is in talks with NSA Jake Sullivan and CIA chief William Burns; Bilawal Bhutto has met Anthony Blinken; Finance Minister Miftah Ismail visited Washington for an IMF bailout; Bajwa has taken to openly praising American equipment, relations, and support; a FATF team has already visited Pakistan to check if the authorities are doing enough to fulfil the conditions required to exit the grey list. And Biden has approved the F16 maintenance program. All this happened, soon after Imran was booted out, including the US drone that made its way into Afghanistan and took out Zawahiri.

There are other tell-tale signs too. The recent news of Pakistani arms spotted among the Ukrainian forces suggests a radical shift in the Russo-Pak relation. Then there is another issue of the terrorist attack at the gates of the Russian Embassy in Kabul. With the Taliban in power and dependent on Russia and China to provide legitimacy, it was definitely not them; which leaves the ISKP (Islamic State–Khorasan Province) to carry out the blast that resulted in the death of at least two Russians. Has Pakistan started targeting Russians? Perhaps not! But, they have the Taliban to settle scores with, especially since the Taliban is not reining the TTP in Pakistan. With their dubious connection within the Western camps, ISKP is a handy tool. While the West gets to eliminate Russians (recall Darya Dugina), Rawalpindi gets to put the Taliban on the back foot. A huge addition could be straight access to the ISKP. It has the potential to take the Pakistan Army back to the 1980s – and that could impact entire central and south Asia. With their relationship with the West looking up, the possibilities are immense.

But Imran is planning a comeback

And this is where the game could change, again. The key players are two: Imran’s street power, and the judiciary. Imran Khan – having popularized his image as a cultish leader who does not need to explain himself to his followers – within weeks of his ouster has managed to stage an extraordinary comeback. What is very interesting is that the mobilization of these thousands of supporters was done completely through social media, given that the traditional channels refused to help him. The corruption allegations against him have not had an impact because frankly, given its historic scale in Pakistan, Imran’s PKR 142 million is not even a blip on the radar. Veteran Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa informs that even the Army is split about Imran Khan – a rarity of sorts, and one that would not fare well for Rawalpindi if it persists. Add to that the fact that General Bajwa – the face behind this ouster, is about to retire. He may get an extension, true, but this would be his final one.

The second crucial factor is the Pakistani judiciary. Sure, they covertly supported the Army during the last round, but will they continue to? A dicey question indeed, for there is a fair chance that the judiciary – in order to maintain their relevance – would shift to the Imran camp if he maintains his street popularity in the run-up to the next elections. It is important to remember that Imran’s present wave is openly anti-Army, in addition to being anti-USA.

Would Imran hit the Army, or would the Army hit back?

A big question! The assassination of political leaders during crucial moments is another long-standing tradition in Pakistan. There is no definite knowledge to confirm if the Pakistani deep-state has graduated to more modern methods of permanently silencing an important opposition, so how it would fare for Imran Khan during this interim period is anyone’s guess.

The two big options for Pakistan are: continue to be a violent puppet to the US agenda of destabilising Asia or be bought over by China in installments. And as they keep trotting back and forth between these two plates, they would keep throwing up unknowns that would continue affecting not just their population but also the south and central Asian landscape.

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