As the fate of Pakistan’s general elections remains uncertain, General Asim Munir, the army chief and de facto ruler of Pakistan, is en route to the United States.
Traditionally, foreign visits by the head of Pakistan’s powerful army receive anticipatory hype in the country’s media — choreographed by the military’s press wing. But, in a break with precedent, news of the visit was only made public once the general’s flight took off.
In Washington, Munir will meet with senior U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Counterterrorism will top the bilateral agenda as Pakistan has seen an upsurge in militant violence near the border with Afghanistan. China — Pakistan’s closest strategic partner and a rival to the U.S. — may also come up in the discussions as the Pakistani military looks to rebalance relations between the two great powers. And so might the continuation of Pakistani arms transfers to Ukraine. But a return to democracy in Islamabad is unlikely to factor into the U.S.-Pakistan talks.
Democracy on the Backburner
Munir’s visit reflects how little a priority democracy is in the Biden administration’s Pakistan policy. The Pakistan Army runs the country. It even commands a top economic policy-making body: the Special Investment Facilitation Council.
Nominally, Pakistan is ruled by a caretaker government whose sole task is to oversee the holding of elections. Its real job is to get out of the army’s way and let it govern.
Pakistan’s constitution has been effectively held in abeyance since April. Elections in two provinces, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have yet to take place despite a Supreme Court-mandated deadline of April 2023.
Similarly, national-level elections have been postponed till February 2024, in violation of the constitution. Even then, it remains to be seen whether general elections will take place.
President Joe Biden came to office claiming that protecting democracy and human rights would be at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. Were that the case, the Biden administration would have waited till after Pakistan’s elections were held to reward Munir with an audience in Washington.
The Specter of Khan
The uncertainty over Pakistan’s elections stems from the fear of the Pakistan Army and its aligned politicians that the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) of the now-imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan could sweep the polls. Since his ouster from power in a vote of no confidence in April 2022, Khan has been at loggerheads with the army’s top brass, claiming they colluded with the U.S. for his removal.
In the ensuing twenty months, Khan held massive rallies across Pakistan, defying the army. He survived an assassination attempt on November 3, 2022. This May saw violent clashes between the army and protestors with Khan’s PTI after the ex-cricketer was dragged from the Islamabad High Court by paramilitary forces.
And this August, the army finally put him behind bars after he was convicted on charges related to the concealment of wealth.
The army has forced the resignation of virtually the entire senior brass of Khan’s PTI. Today, thousands of political prisoners remain behind bars along with Khan. Members of his party continue to be arrested simply for assembling in public. Yet, despite the pressure, they managed to hold a sizeable rally in Kohat, near the border with Afghanistan.
Khan remains resilient in part because his opponents do little to inspire the public. Inflation remains at around 30 percent. Despite being accorded extraordinary powers, the army-backed caretaker government has failed to complete promised economic reforms, including the privatization of state-owned companies. This weekend, the army-installed caretaker chief minister of the Punjab province posted a video on social media of his government’s solution to the city of Lahore’s massive smog problem: spraying water onto roads. The army clearly values loyalty over competence.
It’s no wonder Khan’s PTI has retained its public support. And it’s because of this resilience that there is growing talk of postponing the elections in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where Khan is most popular, and even nationwide.
The Strategic Rebalancing
Pakistan factors little into U.S. grand strategy. But despite its economic duress, Pakistan is a pivot state in South Asia — a region that includes India, borders China, and lies at the center of the Indian Ocean region.
Counterterrorism is likely to be high on the agenda during Munir’s visit. Pakistan continues to see a surge in jihadist violence from Afghanistan along with attacks by ethnic separatist militias, including a deadly attack in November on a key Belt and Road-linked highway.
The Pakistan Army is fed up with the Afghan Taliban, its former proxies, who have enabled the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, to attack Pakistan from safe havens in Afghanistan. As a result, the Pakistani Army has pushed out tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, using these vulnerable families as leverage against the Afghan Taliban. But the Afghan Taliban are unmoved.
Exasperated with Kabul, Pakistan may seek more direct U.S. counterterrorism assistance. There’s speculation that Pakistan could see a return of a more significant U.S. intelligence presence to thwart a resurgence of al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.
Reducing Pakistan’s military dependence on China may also come up in the talks. In September, the Pakistan Army arranged a high-profile visit of the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan to the Chinese-operated port of Gwadar, part of a bid by the Pakistani military to signal it won’t allow the area to host a Chinese naval base.
Munir could also discuss with senior Biden administration officials continuing the transfer of arms to Ukraine through third-party countries in Europe. In the past, Ukraine-bound 155mm artillery shells manufactured by the Pakistani military have been purchased by U.S. government contractors like Global Ordnance, but U.S. funding for Ukraine could dry up by the end of this year should Congress fail to approve the White House’s $106 billion supplemental funding spending request.
Despite the renewed momentum, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has low chances of returning to its Cold War heights. India’s importance to the U.S. is a limiting factor. And Pakistan remains dependent on Chinese military hardware.
But Washington clearly sees Munir as important enough to invite him over during his power grab. Something significant, it seems, is in the offing.
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.