Martial Law again — what other option does Pakistan army have?

[PTI Attack on Lahore Corps Commander’s residence]

The televised attacks by a crowd loyal to Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreeq-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, of Imran’s followers running amuck, torching the residence of IV Corps Commander (Lahore) are simply astonishing. General Headquarters (GHQ) Rawalpindi too came under attack, as did the compound of the Peshawar Corps commander. What is unfolding across the border has the feel of a popular uprising — a revolution even. Pakistan looks to be in the throes of what Imran desired: A “jihad for freedom”.

It is the first time in the seven decades of its existence that Pakistan is witnessing the army — the self-professed guardian of the Pakistan Ideology and the Pakistani State which has grown fat feasting on the country’s meagre resources, under direct and immense pressure from the masses, who until yesterday thought the army could do no wrong. The World Bank imposed austerity regime on an imports-fixated Pakistan economy has squeezed the common man with 30% plus inflation rate and a value-depleted Pakistani ruppee (300 P-ruppees today buy one US dollar). Notwithstanding, the Pakistan army still lives high on the hog. Fed up with the military’s long standing puppet master’s role in the politics of the country, the Pakistani people have turned on it.

The immediate provocation was the arrest of Imran Khan by the paramilitary Rangers operating under the direction of the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He was shanghied from the High Court premises, pummelled into an armoured police vehicle, and simply made to disappear. No one knows where he is. The former prime minister is charged with corruption, in the main, for the double-tripping of monies worth Rs 50 billion (190 million pounds) siphoned from the exchequer via UK banks and returned to Pakistan, a transaction facilitated by the real estate tycoon of ill-repute, Malik Riaz. Riaz is known for having army generals in his ample pocket, courtesy gifts of houses and plots in colonies he has developed on land his uniformed friends have helped him secure by fair, but mostly foul, means.

In any case, the 140-odd official charges against Imran announced by the Home Minister Rana Sanaullah, are not important.

What is significant is that the Game of Dare that Pakistan army and Imran have been engaged in, in the last 4-5 months has finally come to a head. Ironically, it is the army’s one-time pet and political creation who has turned on the army, confident now that he has successfully mobilised much of the population, especially in Punjab, and freed himself and PTI of the army’s control, that he can ride the people’s support into power and owe GHQ, Rawalpindi nothing. For this goal to be realized, however, requires the current government of Shabaz Sharif to call elections which it won’t do because it is sure to lose. Army can of course force Shabaz’s hand, which it is disinclined to do because it shares with him bad feelings for Imran and PTI.

Post-retirement the former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa was time and again goaded by Imran Khan who publicly blamed him for unseating him as PM and installing the Shabaz Sharif regime run remotely by the London-based Mian Nawaz, the current prime minister’s older sibling and ruling party founder. It highlighted a fact of political life in Pakistan that no one is hoisted into power in Islamabad without the Pakistan army assisting in his elevation. It was, therefore, mortifying to GHQ, Rawalpindi, to find Imran biting the hand that had fed him.

It didn’t take long for the army to retaliate. ISI revealed in drips personal telephone conversations involving Imran’s third wife, Bushra Bibi. One such had the Bibi loudly upbraiding a servant for his handling of items taken from the toshakhana! Upping the ante, Imran responded by arranging leaks of Bajwa’s imcome tax returns that showed a phenomenal increase in the General’s wealth over his six-year term, apart from numerous prized plots all over the country, their title deeds magically materializing in the names of family members, including a suddenly rich daughter-in-law. Ouch! That hurt because Bajwa was considered a relative straight arrow, among the cleaner corps commnders, when he was picked by Nawaz to be COAS! Unrelenting, Imran then shoved army into a corner with friendly reporters encouraged to share with the public confidential conversations Bajwa had with them in early 2022 in which he candidly talked about the army being in dire straits and, for want of spares and POL (petroleum, oil, lubricants) unable to fight a war — the implied reason for his arranging with New Delhi in 2019 a ceasefire on the Line of Control in J&K.

What the Pakistan army is not used to is a political leader it propped up and then deposed fighting back by getting the people on his side. This is what Imran has done. Indeed, the army brass was given fair warning about violent mass response in case it tried to take him out. The Director-General, Inter-Services Public Relations, two days ago reacted by threatening Imran with consequences if he crossed the redline of continuing with his public campaign against Bajwa and the army.

This has always been the pattern: The Pakistan army chooses the man/party to be the “mukhota” for its rule and conducts elections to give their selected regime legitimacy. Invariably, that person/party fails to deliver on promises, or he becomes a nuisance or so unpopular because of corruption or unpopular policies that he becomes a political liability. Thereupon the army brass ditch him lest the sparks of the people’s discontent conflagrate into a wild-spreading fire that engulfs them. Then GHQ, Rawalpindi, acts — orchestrates street protests, makes life uncomfortable, giving it the excuse to replace the incumbent with someone new or, as in Shabaz’s case, someone known and old, using elections for the purpose of such installation.

With the people all riled and roused by Imran’s fiery rhetoric, it is a tricky situation Pakistan army finds itself in. It cannot hold a show trial and bung Imran into jail let alone hang him on trumped up charges as General Zia ul-Haq did Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, or force him into comfortable exile in Britain ostensibly on health grounds as Bajwa managed with Nawaz Sharif, but which like effort was rebuffed by the Pakistan People’s Party chief Asif Ali Zardari.

If nothing drastic is possible as regards Imran Niazi and the coalition headed by the Pakistan Muslim League led by the Nawaz-Shabaz duo cannot be relied on to win the next general elections, then what is the army under General Asim Muneer and his cohort to do without losing for it the privileged position it has enjoyed since 1958? It was in that year that tiring of a new PM every other month, Ayub Khan simply kicked all the politicians out and introduced to the people of Pakistan the downside of martial law government.

In far more testing social, economic and political circumstances roiled by terrorist actions of Tehreeq-e-Taliban Pakistan intent on establishing sharia in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and the Baloch liberation groups, running the country, what to talk of governing it, has become virtually impossible. GHQ, Rawalpindi, may decide to cut its losses, withdraw into cantonments and let the politicians fight it out on the streets, which will trigger anarchy and who knows what the outcome might be for the army? Alternatively, it can exercise its tried and tested option — impose martial law. Such a move will have the backing for sure of the Shabaz government. which viscerally hates Imran and his PTI and, most importantly, of the higher bureaucracy, which has always preferred military rule to the uncertainties of electoral politics and civilian Raj.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, corruption, Culture, Decision-making, domestic politics, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, guerilla warfare, Indo-Pacific, Internal Security, Islamic countries, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Pakistan, Pakistan military, society, South Asia, Terrorism. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Martial Law again — what other option does Pakistan army have?

  1. Troubling times for Pakistan for sure, Dr Karnad. What about their Army? Many reports suggest that there may be factions within? Will they all rally around as one? ( as in the past) or is a split brewing? Most importantly, in times to come, will Pakistan bear this storm of popular dissent or splinter?

  2. Email from Lt Gen Arun Sahni (Retd):
    Wed, 10 May at 7:48 am

    Many Thanks Bharat
    To the point as always
    Best Wishes
    Arun Sahni

  3. Charly Verma says:

    Pak Generals have successfully fooled all forever and managed to keep the crown over their head. Crown appears shaky on the head this time.Maybe Generals have gone bald. If they do manage to right up the crown we may term it as a hair raising event.

  4. Email from Vice admiral Satish Soni (Retd):

    Wed, 10 May at 1:12 pm

    Thanks.
    As usual very well written.
    Rgds
    Satish soni

  5. Amit says:

    Professor,

    Interesting assessment of the situation in Pakistan. Hard to predict what will happen in such a volatile situation.

    Lately however, there have been several assessments by top ex Indian military officers and bureaucrats/ think tankers on the situation in Pakistan (e.g., Chanakya Dialogues). The view is that India will be in a state of perpetual war with periods of peace with Pakistan or whatever remains of it. And India should watch the chaos unfold there.

    Yet, there is also talk of redrawing boundaries, especially Gilgit Baltistan. And denial of Indian involvement in the current situation in Pakistan.

    However, wanted Indian terrorists are being knocked off in Pakistan. Indian relations with the Taliban have improved and the TTP is keeping Pakistan active on two fronts. Methinks this is a successful Indian covert strategy to keep Pakistan in check. Such things don’t happen on their own.

    However, if Indians can leverage American help to break China’s influence on Pakistan covertly, it would be a truly brilliant operation by India. My suspicion is that India is pretty deeply involved in Pakistani chaos. And because it is covert, no one will discuss it.

    • Perpetual war with Pakistan is the kind of nonsense dear to the hearts of the ex-types that shouldn’t be perpetuated.

      The balkanised Pakistan scenario is something retired Lt Colonel Ralph Peters, US army, sketched out over 30 years ago. Peters is known for his “military fiction” writing. His idea is what certain retired Indian armymen are running with, except the US won’t permit it to happen.

      • Amit says:

        Professor,

        I would rather listen to what a military man says with regard to what’s going on in Pakistan than a non military man. They know much better what it takes to put their lives at stake and actually manage the situation on the ground. I’m glad that more of them are coming out in the public domain and speaking about the options.

  6. Dhairya Upadhyay says:

    The turbulance in the punjab region will distract establishment and shift it’s focus towards the mainland from the Af-Pak region and the baloch region. This may also result in factions amoung the ISI which is already influenced by the Islamist Ideologies and by islamist organizations. This in turn could be used by the org. like TTP and others to radicalise more people in the mainland to go against the Establishment and carry out strikes.
    The army is itself divided and the matrial law doesn’t gaurantee peace. As was not in the musharaf’s time. And as per my understanding from the book “Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of ISI and RAW ” by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark.
    Both the army and ISI are divided.
    Now having an enemy with so many flaws and weak point, how hard could it be to balkanize them?? (If we play Machiavellian Tactics)
    I don’t think USA could stop us I think it has opened it self so many fronts to fight on be it ukraine, middle east, Taiwan, or South America, increasing nationalism in europe, Russia China.
    What is the are waiting for ??? (10 trillion Dollar Economy)
    Or it’s just that our focus is in China and we dont give a damm about pak?

  7. Amit says:

    Professor, just to clarify, the perpetual war comment relates to the perpetual state of terror and hybrid war rather than full fledged war.

    But in any case, I see more and more military men giving their views, and it has actually been a good learning experience on potential options to deal with Pakistan, and what should be done to break the Pak-China nexus.

    I’m of the firm belief that no peace with Pakistan is possible – something that you seem to think is somehow possible. So India’s focus should be to break the Pak-China nexus, which is the main security threat from the northwest. Irrespective of what the US thinks.

  8. Ayush says:

    The enemy is certainly in dire straits.However, the army will certainly eliminate Imran khan, i am damn sure about that.It is in our interests to do as much damage as possible to pak using the current unrest.We have to increase funding and sharing of intelligence with TTP(we are already doing that).Tying down as many pak army units as possible in KPK-balochistan will lead to low deployment of pak army units in punjab.There needs to massive, co-ordinated disinformation campaign from our side.Nonetheless, regardless of whatever we do the US and its European lapdogs along with Chinese will ensure pak does not fall apart.Steady stream of billions of dollars from western organizations are validation of that fact.We have to keep pak on its toes while we continue to amass overwhelming conventional and nuclear military power to shock and awe pak sometime around the end of this decade.

    • Crimson language — “shock & awe” etc is fine as rhetoric for popular consumption but not as mil strategy. It is also seriously to overestimate our capabilities and underestimate Pakistan’s. Pak military has serious limitations but they are not, as yet, fatal.

      • Amit says:

        Professor,

        No shock and awe required. Just covert actions to subvert, weaken and break up Pakistan. I just read in the South China Morning Post, China is investing in naval port in Gwadar, which they think will ‘annoy’ India.

        It’s not just Ralph Peters who came up with this ‘fiction’. Indira Gandhi wanted to do it in 1971. This is not a new idea. Why can’t it be done? Why not prepare to take care of the nukes? Why not prepare the border areas for the ensuing refugees? Why not prepare a plan to prop up and support alternate provincial governments after the collapse? Why not use the Israelis? Why not be proactive rather than ‘wait and watch’? Why not put Pak through a slow and steady grinder that they cannot withstand? In fact all this may be happening already. Why is it fiction?

      • Ayush says:

        @Bharat
        I mentioned very clearly that “shock&awe” is only possible by the end of this decade if not later.As per in-house war games which we organized, a 1000 cruise-ballistic missile barrage is enough to eliminate PAF-SPD’s main C2 facilities,strategic ports of karachi and gwadar,five operational oil refineries and vast majority(80%) of PAF fighter fleet.After that,it is nothing more than a repeat of Op Desert Storm,with missile barrage being followed by massive airstrikes led by IAF jets armed state-of-the-art AESA based ASPJ jammers,Rudram series ARM and 1 ton Gaurav glide bombs, against remaining PAF AD assets,army ammunition dumps and finally,a massive 1000-2000 main-battle tank armoured thrust from Western Rajasthan and Punjab.Of course,Building enough missiles,nukes,AD etc.to eliminate not just Pak but also deter Chinese and Western(UN) intervention will take at least till the end of the decade.As per our wargame,Pak’s key weakness is poor military and nuclear C2.Almost all SPD bunkers located near islamabad can be destroyed with a handful of Brahmos/pralay missiles armed with penetration warheads.Besides,unlike us and the chinese they don’t have Command posts buried under granite mountains and neither do they have airborne commnad posts(like Air India One).Another key weakness is the state of their oil reserves and industry,the destruction of the 5 oil refineries(with 20 missiles each) along with the two strategic ports(50 missiles each) will prevent Pak from refining or even importing any further oil.Their meagure strategic reserves will last no more than 10-15 days and after that all the imported toys of Pak army and PAF will be reduced to metal boxes.Destruction of ports and lack of local industry mean that they will not be able to import critical spare parts for weapons.Paki economy will compelety collapse.This will eliminate any possibilty of prolonging the war.Destruction of the C2 of SPD will eliminate possibility of Nuclear first-use.Simply,put there is no way Pak can survive an assault like what I described above,regardless of what they do. Make no mistake,the US and China are not going sit back and watch their most beloved mongrel get pulverized.Only strong conventional and nuclear deterrence will keep them away.There will undoubtedly be massive sanctions,something akin to what has been imposed on Russia right now.However,our economy will be several times larger and much more self-reliant than the russians in several critical sectors,especially semiconductors.We won’t have to go to the Chinese(for instance) with a begging bowl as the Russians are doing today.The simple reason why the Russia-Ukraine has prolonged is not western support but rather Russian reluctance to decisively and ruthlessly target overground and underground Ukro C2 facilites(centers of gravity) in Kiev.This is a mistake which India will have to avoid at any cost,especially because Pak is a nuclear power.However,if the above plan is executed properly, India will secure for itself a truly historic,monumental military triumph,becoming the only nation to have crushed a nuclear power.In terms of military achievement we would surpassed even Russia or the US.This will secure Great Power status for a long time and crush any possibilty of a “Chinese Asia”.

      • Not sure where the 1,000-odd missiles for the barrage are going to come from even by 2030. Your org is apparently not aware of the annual Agni and cruise missile production rate. This is something I have been crying out aloud about for over a decade now — not that anybody listened. Has this changed? Not, as far as I know.

      • Ayush says:

        @Bharat
        Thanks for the prompt reply.The wargame we held was carried out by a handful of retired three-star army and Air Force officers who are friends of my grandfather, it also did include some classified intelligence but was mostly based on OSINT data.Also, I am a student at IIT Bombay(CS), thinking of joining the IAF upon graduation and not any member of any organization.

        The production of Agni missiles is dismal,agreed.However,there is no point of producing more Agni’s when we don’t have nuclear warheads to arm them with.The endless delays in the commissioning of the PFBR prevents us from producing industrial quantities of plutonium.Also,it is only now that we have managed to develop tactically usable ballistic missiles(Agni-P/Pralay).We are set to produce around 300 Pralay missiles this year.If we theoretically produce similar number of 1500km cruise missiles, we can have enough missiles for a pak contingency by the end of 2026, which would also coincide with the operationalization of our new-age
        C2 among other things.

      • Lots of things are on paper.

  9. Amit says:

    Professor,

    We need some of the Indian think tanks to publish these war games and generate some debate on the options India has to break the Pak-China nexus and be more proactive in coming up with solutions to the security problem from the northwest/north. CSIS regularly does this in the U.S. and recently published the results of the war game of a war with China if it were held today. This is a great info warfare tool that can and should be used to good effect.

    For too long, Indians have been used to passive security postures. It’s time think tanks in India partner with the Indian military and publish some war game results periodically.

    I remember last year I bemoaned the lack of Indian military opinions on strategic security issues. This year that has change dramatically! Now there is a plethora of senior military input. If Indian think tanks can partner with the Indian military and periodically publish some war game results, it would be a fantastic addition to the info warfare that India requires in addition to hard military power projection.

  10. Ayush says:

    @ Bharat
    It is the unanimous opinion of well-informed people I know that Putin’s reluctance to deal with the Ukrainians with the same bestial barbarity which the Nazis and then the Soviets used to tame these wild animals 80 years earlier is going to cost Putin the war and probably even his head.As you have described in the past, the Ukrainians are implacable enemies of Russia, I would further add that they only submit to animalistic cruelty which the Nazis and then the Soviets subjected them to eigthy years ago.This is a cold but undeniable fact.

    The west(NATO) is literally emptying every single military warehouse across the world in trying to arm their newfound cannon-fodder.Putin has to authorize massive and ruthless strikes against Ukro C2 node inside Kiev, strategic railroad bridges across the Dnieper and more.And he was supposed to carry these strikes out in the first hour of his campaign.To be very honest,I personally prefer a megaton range detonation centered at the government district of Kiev which would eliminate the entire swarm of the parasites without doubt.This is essential to instill a bone-chilling shock and awe effect in the minds of western political and military leaders.The American global empire will only come down with a massive bang.The fall of that empire is essential for India’s rise.Besides,as a sidenote I truly find it unbelievably farcical that western military leaders do not expect putin to reach out to his most favorite weapons when they clearly intend to kill him.Moreover,even in the event of a Russian first-use, they expect it to be a very limited “demonstrative strike”.Make no mistake ,if Putin does reach for his nuclear trump card he will certainly evaporate Kiev to deter western escalation as he is full aware of western threats to intervene in the event of tactical nuke usage.

  11. Amit says:

    Professor,

    I’ve watched several YouTube discussions on the situation in Pakistan. And also some writings in media like the Print etc. LGs Dushyant Singh, Panag, Hasnain and MG Ravi Narayanan amongst others. The general opinion of the military leaders seems to be that a stable Pakistan is in India’s interests. MG Ravi Narayanan explores the possibility of getting back GB over a long period of time without fighting a war. This is the option I too have been thinking of and feel India must actively pursue.

    Ayush presented a war game scenario from his gramp, which is an overt aggressive option. Whether India can execute such an option is an open question, but nevertheless an option which expands the thinking on the situation in Pakistan.

    None of them generals however, acknowledge any Indian involvement. Yet to someone observing from the outside, it is clear India is involved covertly. The events unfolding in Pakistan are just too important for India to take a back seat while the US and China are active.

    From the latest YouTube discussion I gather that the U.S. wants to keep the pot boiling while China wants a more stable Pakistan so that it can recover its CPEC investments. In this case India would also want the pot boiling to prevent Chinese influence over Pakistan. In fact, India must actively look to break the Chinese hold over Pakistan. The CPEC is neither in India’s interest or America’s.

    Another interesting observation from the latest discussion with LG Dushyant Singh is that the first break up of Pakistan could happen in the FATA region, even though he does not support its breakup (though he does not support it, he thinks the current army chief Munir is like the Gorbachev of Pakistan). All this points to high volatility on India’s northwest borders. India must plan for contingencies, which includes the break up of Pakistan.

  12. Salam/Greetings Mr. Karnad from across the Radcliffe line,

    Sir, it turns out that the great late Satyajit Ray’s disdain for commercial Hindi cinema and its consumers was not misplaced.

    This section, which is numerically the largest in the country, is extremely gullible and exploitable.

    Post- 2014, a lot “experts” and “Pakistan watchers” began selling opioids like the “Pakistan will soon get balkanized”, “Pakistan will disintegrate”, etc., which were swiftly bought by the aforementioned section. The Modi dispensation profited electorally while the sheep were glued to their cell phone screens consuming the likes of Tarek Fatah, Arnab Goswami, Arif Ajakia, Major Gaurav, and other snake oil salesmen/women.

    We are more or less fluent in each other’s idiom. We can have an extremely informed commentariat on both sides.

    Yet, frenzy sells and so it is marketed to garner some bucks. But, alas, at what cost !!

    Lastly, to put things into a more sober and less childish perspective, the Pakistan Armed Forces faced more intense internal insurrections in the aughts and early tens. The so called “War on Terror” was actually two factions of the Pakistan national security establishment facing each other off. There were attacks on sensitive airbases, special services group, intelligence offices, generals, air-force officers, navy installations, etc.

    Did people just forget the attack on GHQ in October 2009? And did they also forget that two months later in December 2009 terrorists struck a mosque in a military residential colony which resulted in the killing of several retired and in-service officers?

    [dozens of other instances can also be given]

    Now, none of these events were possible without a strong collaborative network within the forces.

    Still, the institutional unity and the chain of command remained intact.

    To summarize, in order to fully comprehend what is going on here, our friends in India should see things in much wider, *grown-up* context and not treat the unfolding events as scenes from an intellectually challenged Hindi/Urdu flick.

    Regards

    • Amit says:

      @Izadi,
      Matters of National security are no filmi scenes. The discussion happening in India is how India can secure its northwestern borders. And how to use hard power to achieve India’s security interests. It is no secret that Pakistan is no friend of India and will never be given how brainwashed its population is. So yes, you may not like some of the comments shared here, but trust me, this is not filmi business. Neither is it election sloganeering. As India grows in economic and military power trust it to tighten the screws on Pakistan.

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