Imran Khan’s Falling Out With Pakistani Military Follows Pattern Since 1960s

In 1963, military ruler Ayub Khan handpicked Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as his foreign minister at 35 before the young politician revolted against his mentor two years later for failing to capitalize on the gains in the 1965 war and ‘losing it with India at the negotiation table

Military ruler Ayub Khan handpicked Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as his foreign minister at 35 in 1963. Bhutto revolted against his mentor two years later. Picture courtesy dawn.com

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Lieutenant-General Nadeem Anjum, the shadowy chief of Pakistan’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), made a rare public appearance that too for an unprecedented news conference this week. What followed was even more without a precedent. He accused his ex-boss, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, of asking the country’s powerful military for ‘illegal and unconstitutional’ support for his government. 

The conference was organised a day before Khan was due to gather his supporters in Lahore on Friday and lead a march on the capital Islamabad, demanding snap polls. Khan has held rallies across Pakistan and swept by-polls since his ouster in April. He doubled down on his criticism of the military in the run-up to the march for allegedly plotting his removal in April and backing his opponents. 

Anjum claimed Khan was critical of the military because it refused to do illegal or unconstitutional things. He reiterated the military’s policy of staying out of politics and added this was the reason why Khan’s requests were turned down. 

Khan refused to back down and questioned why the military held an unprecedented ‘political presser’ if it is apolitical. He cautioned if he were to respond to it, it will damage the country, highlighting how badly Khan and Pakitan’s military have fallen out. 

Khan’s opponents have maintained the military, which has ruled Pakistan for over 30 of the 75 years of its existence, played a key role in bringing Khan to power by helping him get the support of smaller parties and independents when his party fell short of the majority in 2018. These allies parted ways with Khan and brought down his government in April.

Khan would claim to be on the same page with the military leadership and that the civil-military has never been as harmonious when he was in power and attacked his political opponents for allegedly maligning the armed forces.

His falling out with the military follows a pattern since the 1960s when Field Marshal Ayub Khan handpicked Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, son of a pre-partition Bombay provincial council member, as his foreign minister at 35 in 1963. Bhutto would revolt against his mentor just two years later for ‘failing to capitalize on the gains in the 1965 war and losing it with India at the negotiation table.’  

Bhutto is believed to have been among those who encouraged Ayub Khan, who became Pakistan’s first military ruler in 1958, to go to war with India in 1965 to cap his rule. Ayub Khan revived the economy, carried out agrarian reforms, provided stimulus to the industry, encouraged foreign investment, and state-backed capitalism to usher in what has been described as a ‘golden era’ after ending political turmoil.

The growth was significant. The international media also took note of it as The New York Times concluded in January 1965 that Pakistan might be on its way towards an economic milestone reached ‘by only one other populous country, the United States.’ London’s The Times in 1966 called Pakistan’s survival and development ‘one of the most remarkable examples of state and nation-building in the post-war period.’ It noted Pakistan was ‘considered to be one of the few countries at the time that would achieve developed-country status.’

The 1965 war ended up becoming the first in a series of events that derailed Pakistan’s steady growth. Bhutto is among those believed to have wanted to make the most of India’s humiliating defeat at China’s hands in the 1962 war. He was enraged when Ayub Khan agreed to a ceasefire. Bhutto would go on to form the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and became the country’s most popular leader thanks to his Left-leaning politics.

Bhutto joined a movement against Ayub Khan as it brought together parties and groups of all hues and crippled the country. Ayub Khan, who banned rightist Jamaat-e-Islami and also disliked the Leftists, was forced to step down in March 1969. He handed over power to General Yahya Khan, who reimposed martial law before elections were held in 1970. 

PPP swept the 1970 polls in West Pakistan while Awami League did the same in the country’s eastern wing (now Bangladesh). Bhutto’s subsequent refusal to share power triggered a civil war and led to Bangladesh’s creation with India’s help in 1971. Yahya Khan was soon forced to resign. Bhutto succeeded him as the chief martial law administrator, before assuming the role of president and then prime minister. Ayub Khan died unsung when Bhutto was at the peak of his power in 1974.

Bhutto thought he was playing it safe when he chose Zia-ul-Haq as army chief superseding seven officers. A diminutive man, Zia appeared to fit the bill for Bhutto as he did not come from any of the British-designated ‘martial races’ such as Pathans, Rajputs, and Jats, which have been the mainstay of the army in Pakistan. 

Zia’s four predecessors were Pathans and a Rajput from Pothwar, where a bulk of Pakistani soldiers have traditionally been recruited from. A refugee from India from the ‘non-martial’ farming Arian community, Zia is believed to have utilized every opportunity to impress Bhutto. He is once famously said to have put a cigarette after lighting it in his pocket upon seeing Bhutto as a mark of respect. Zia is believed to have taken it out only after Bhutto urged him to do so or else he would have ended up burning his pants.

Bhutto ended up burning his fingers by promoting Zia, who deposed him in 1977. Bhutto was executed two years later following a questionable trial on trumped-up charges even as three of the seven Supreme Court judges dissented from the confirmation of his death sentence. The three argued the prosecution failed to corroborate the testimony of its chief witness. They argued there was nothing in the evidence regarding Bhutto’s conduct that would not be ‘reasonably capable of an interpretation of innocence.’ 

Bhutto chose Zia despite his lack of experience in active combat. Zia virtually had no chance of getting the top army job. He was away in Jordan during the 1971 war, quelling a Palestinian revolt against King Hussein. During the 1965 war, Zia was involved in the less significant distribution of supplies and provisions. He was the junior-most lieutenant general when Bhutto made him the chief. 

Known as the least ambitious general, Zia made Bhutto believe he was a harmless refugee with no base of his own to mount a coup. Most Prime Ministers have been reluctant to appoint officers from Pothwar as army chiefs because of coup fears. Generals from the region are seen as most likely to carry out coups because of the support they are expected to have among their ranks, which may help them with the coordination needed to overthrow a government. 

Zia would handpick Nawaz Sharif at 31 as a minister in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab. Sharif went on to become the Punjab chief minister and prime minister before becoming a bitter critic of his benefactors. The Sharifs supported Zia as he restored to them the businesses Bhutto nationalized. Run-ins with the military cut short Nawaz Sharif’s first term as prime minister in 1993. He forced army chief Jehangir Karamat to quit after prevailing shortly during his second term. 

Sharif repeated Bhutto’s mistake of making Pervez Musharraf, a refugee from India, for similar reasons the army chief superseding two officers. The move backfired as Musharraf deposed and jailed Sharif. Sharif was later sentenced to death before he opted for exile. Sharif returned to power in 2013 and appointed Qamar Javed Bajwa as the army chief in November 2016, superseding four officers. 

Sharif would later accuse Bajwa of pressuring the judiciary to convict him of corruption in 2017, disqualifying him, and helping Imran Khan form the government in 2018. Sharif blamed Bajwa for his woes even as his party backed legislation in 2019 to grant Bajwa an extension after the Supreme Court suspended it saying howsoever high ‘you may be; the law is above you’ in a dig at the military. 

Pakistan has again come full circle with Imran Khan blaming Bajwa for installing Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz, as the prime minister with the backing of almost all major political parties. The parties in the ruling coalition include the PPP whose charismatic leader Benazir Bhutto was a bitter rival of the Sharifs. While Benazir Bhutto was putting up a valiant struggle against Zia, the Sharifs were the military ruler’s closest allies.

Backed by the military to counter PPP, Nawaz Sharif’s rise in politics coincided with that of Benazir Bhutto, who inherited the PPP from her father after his execution and became the prime minister for the first time after at 35 in 1988.

Unlike all major players in Pakistani politics, Imran Khan, 70, had to earn his stripes. Khan formed his political party in 1996. He came come to power after close to two decades in the political wilderness. He got it in his late sixties unlike Bhuttos and Sharif, who tasted it in their 30s. Benazir Bhutto and former President Asif Ali Zardari’s son, Bilawal, similarly became the foreign minister in his 30s after Imran Khan’s ouster. 

With Khan, Nawaz Sharif in their 70s, and the latter’s political heir, Maryam, showing a similar tendency for confrontational politics, Bilawal appears to be a dark horse if he adopts his father’s style of politics. Zardari, Pakistan’s shrewdest politician, played the ball and ensured the PPP government completed its term in 2013 while Sharif and Khan’s adversarial nature did them in.  

The military, whose claim of being apolitical cannot be taken at face value given how power dynamics are structured in Pakistan, is here to stay. And given the fluid nature of politics, it would prefer the Zardari style of politics of give and take in the longer run.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

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