Pakistan’s National Assembly was dissolved on Wednesday, just days ahead of the end of its five-year term. Constitutionally, general elections must take place within 90 days. But it’s unclear whether they will take place in that time period — or ever.
In its final weeks, the outgoing assembly passed a series of laws that enhance the de jure powers of Pakistan’s de facto paramount institution: the army. And the coalition of parties, known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), instead of fulfilling their constitutional mandate to select the caretaker prime minister to oversee the elections, let the army make that choice.
Last year, the PDM — as the opposition — allied with the army to depose then-Prime Minister Imran Khan. Then, as the government, the PDM conspired to remove him from the political process.
The PDM has gotten what it’s wanted with Khan now in prison. But its deal with the army is proving to be a Faustian bargain. The “democratic” coalition has handed the keys to the country to the army chief, General Asim Munir. He may never give them back. Instead, he is likely to seek to reshape Pakistani politics with two models in mind: Balochistan and Egypt.
Pakistan’s caretaker setup — intended to be a period of transition — will probably instead be a period of transformation.
The Balochistan Model
On Saturday, the Pakistan Army placed its man, Anwaarul Haq Kakar, as the caretaker prime minister. Kakar is an ethnic Pashtun from the northern part of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Though a senator till Sunday, he has no political capital of his own. He owes his political stature to the army.
In Balochistan, ethnic nationalist and Islamist parties dominate. Kakar is a Pakistani nationalist who favors a strong center and army. That’s the role he was deployed for in Balochistan. That’s what he was trained for.
Kakar attended the National Security Workshop of Pakistan’s National Defense University, which is run by the Pakistan Army. The army uses the workshop to educate civilians — including journalists — on issues related to national security, including the insurgency in Balochistan. The workshop has also served as a vehicle for the army to cultivate a generation of commentators and think tank scholars who can amplify its talking points and worldview in the public domain.
Kakar is no raging nationalist. Articulate and sober, he’s been an effective talking head, promoting the army’s views through a platform known as the Voice of Balochistan. More importantly, he’s also entered into the political fold, serving most recently with the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) — a group engineered by the Pakistan Army to displace the province’s political elite.
Kakar’s rise comes as we are seeing the Balochistanization of Pakistan. Nationwide, Pakistan is now experiencing what was largely relegated to Balochistan, at least in terms of scale: brute force and rampant enforced disappearances targeting the political class met with the indifference or silence of the courts and media, and a political process heavily stage-managed by two- and three-star generals to create the veneer of consensus-based civilian rule.
Kakar’s ascent means the acceleration of the application of Balochistan rules to all of Pakistan. The army will use him to push forward major economic transactions, including the sale to Saudi Arabia of the Pakistani government’s stake in Reko Diq, one of the world’s largest untapped copper mines.
The problem for the army is that this model hasn’t worked in Balochistan, where an insurgency — driven to a large extent by resource nationalism — festers. And it won’t work at the center.
The Egypt Model
In July 2013, Egypt’s army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi deposed the country’s president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Freedom and Justice Party.
The next month, hundreds of anti-coup protestors were killed by state security forces in what was known as the Rabaa massacre. The popular politics of Tahrir Square came to an end. Nearly six years later, Morsi died in a prison cell under dubious circumstances.
An ailing economy played a major role in the narrative used to justify al-Sisi’s seizure of power. And for much of the period since he took on the role of president, al-Sisi has been portrayed as an economic reformer with a grand vision — a builder like Muhammad Ali Pasha.
But Egypt today is an economic basket case. Under al-Sisi, Egypt has seen persistent double-digit inflation and multiple International Monetary Fund programs.
Al-Sisi has wasted public resources, including on the construction of a new capital city. The Egyptian military’s role in the country’s economy has surged under al-Sisi, cannibalizing opportunities for more productive investment from the private sector.
As of 2019, the Egyptian military “manage[d] approximately one-quarter of total government spending in housing and public infrastructure,” according to Yezid Sayigh, a top expert on Egypt’s political economy.
Sayigh writes that al-Sisi has “shown his contempt openly for the civilian agencies of his own state” and “feels he can only trust the military to do the job on time, within budget.”
The problem, however, has been that al-Sisi “doesn’t mean he actually has an economic vision.” Sayigh argues that Egypt’s ruler, like most generals, “doesn’t understand how the economy works, how to get it going, how to generate jobs and growth, how to increase revenue in a sustainable way.”
Many Pakistanis will find this familiar. And those who don’t soon will.
Today, senior Pakistan Army commanders play a lead role in “facilitating” foreign investment in the Special Investment Facilitation Council or SIFC. Speaking like a head of government, General Munir promises “an investor-friendly system that avoids unnecessary delays and provides easy terms and conditions for business.”
But like its Egyptian counterpart, the Pakistan Army can’t be an engine of reform because it is committed to maintaining its inefficient, parasitic role in the country’s economy.
Ultimately, the army may succeed in ensuring its political dominance in the country by keeping an independent-minded leader out of power by any means necessary.
Though in recent years Congressional Democrats have gotten some of U.S. military aid to Egypt suspended, al-Sisi largely remains insulated from penalty as he’s seen as a vital strategic partner in the Middle East. And he’s cultivated support from Gulf Arab states opposed to the spread of Islamism, though they’re tired of giving him handouts.
Pakistan’s generals hope a rekindled alignment with the United States will also protect them from being penalized for their power grab. Since last year, Pakistan has armed Ukraine through Western intermediaries, providing Kyiv with vital artillery as firepower proves to be scarce.
There’s now indication Pakistan is no longer simply transferring old inventory to Ukraine (via third parties), it’s also now supplying newly-manufactured ammunition to Kyiv. Rawalpindi’s arms transfers to Kyiv are no one-time deal.
Pakistan’s generals are also preparing for a rapid-fire sale of state assets to Gulf Arab states. They are replicating Egypt’s failed economic model — one that has parallels with the initial years of the rule of General Pervez Musharraf.
But for Pakistan Army, maintaining its political hegemony is its bottom line. Whereas it had attempted to do so since 2008 through more indirect means, its efforts are now less subtle.
In other words, Mr. Kakar and Gen. Munir may be around for a very long time.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine. He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.