NEW DELHI: An excerpt from ‘The Gist‘, with Dr C. Christine Fair, Professor at the Security Studies Programme, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University and Author of several books including, ‘In Their Own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba‘ and ‘Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War‘ in conversation with StratNews Global Associate Editor Amitabh P. Revi.
Watch the full conversation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atcjKEb45pE&t=13s
APR: What do you think Shehbaz Sharif’s abilities and intentions are, considering the system? On Afghanistan, you’ve tweeted, saying that he’s just the Mayor of Islamabad. Many would actually say that applies to all Pakistani foreign policy and anything to do with the army.
CF: Ultimately, that’s my opinion, right? Essentially, the Prime Minister’s house is basically a rental apartment and the landlord is the Army. The difference between Shehbaz Sharif and Imran Khan is that Imran Khan was very vocal on policy issues, where he had a very distinctly divergent view from that of the Army. Imran Khan ran on a platform of anti-americanism, anti westernism, anti-indianism. He tried to basically hoist Pakistan up on global Islamist issues, while being of course studiously silent and even obtuse when it came to the Chinese persecution of the Uyghurs. The Pakistan Army really wants something else. The Pakistan Army doesn’t want a complete rupture with the United States because quite frankly, it would like to continue having a defence supply relationship. Something of course, I strenuously oppose. It wants to make sure that Pakistan continues to be on the FATF grey list because getting a blacklisting will mean that it will not have access to IMF funds. So what can a Prime Minister do? A Prime Minister can shift domestic opinion towards directions that antagonise the army, and that’s certainly what Imran Khan did. These rules are finite and they’re knowable. When Benazir Bhutto was literally picked to become the Prime Minister, after Zia-ul-Haq was killed, she was told, you can be Prime Minister, but you have to accept a couple of terms. The first term is you don’t get in the business of the Army and you don’t muck around in foreign policy. And by extension, you don’t engage in domestic policy issues that will impinge upon either of those. Imran Khan violated all of those terms of agreement that would allow him to continue to be the Prime Minister. He got into the business of Bajwa and the appointment of the ISI chief. He really wanted to keep the ISI chief in place for the 2023 elections, because he was so important in getting Imran Khan elected. And then, of course, Khan was very supportive of Putin. He was actually in Russia the very day that Putin launched the war on Ukraine. And Bajwa came out in opposition to it. So this was just not tenable at all. And then, of course, Imran Khan positioned himself and interestingly enough, he always had positioned himself as being the person that was going to bring the Army to heel. All of this just made him unpalatable. This is in addition, of course, to the general shambolic state of Pakistan’s economy. Because he was seen as the Army’s puppet, as a part of this hybrid regime, all of this began to reflect poorly upon the Army. And to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Army shifts out Bajwa altogether sooner than later. Because this showdown with Khan is also not working to the Army’s advantage. The people have turned against Bajwa and that’s the kind of situation that does motivate the Army to swap out Chiefs. This is an addition to of course the controversial extensions of his term, which typically causes discord within the ranks.
APR: Interesting, you’re saying that, because the DG ISPR had a press conference. He did say that (Bajwa) is not going to extend his term beyond November, and he intends to retire. He also completely threw Imran Khan under the bus in terms of the so-called diplomatic cables. But, since you’re talking about untenability, how tenable is the opposition? They have a one point agenda. They achieved that. Getting Imran Khan out. But, what next?
CF: Again, this is a situation that plays to the Army’s hand, because what the Army never wants is a Prime Minister with a solid mandate. That was the problem with the Nawaz Sharif election in 2013. He didn’t need a coalition. He actually won with an outright majority. That gave Nawaz Sharif the flexibility, mandate, if you will to, for example, try to prosecute Musharraf for treason. What the Army always wants is a Prime Minister in a fragile coalition that it can manipulate. What the ISI is spectacular at is manipulating the outcome of elections before, during and most importantly, after an election. So the ISI was critical, for example, in helping Imran Khan get coalition partners so that he could form that government. Without the ISI, it’s not clear he could have done it. So Shehbaz Sharif is going to be very dependent upon this coalition which as you said, has kind of nothing in common except the desire to get Imran Khan out. He’s going to be literally serving at the pleasure of the Army. Now of course all Prime Ministers do this. But, his situation is extremely precarious. Then he has another problem. It’s virtually impossible to imagine that Shehbaz Sharif is going to be able to do anything with respect to Pakistan’s economy in a way that will make people happy. He will most certainly have to get rid of the fuel subsidies that Imran Khan had in place, especially as the Russian war in Ukraine stretches on. COVID continues to put price pressure on things, especially everything made in China that we all consume. I don’t know about what Indians are experiencing. Americans were experiencing considerable shortfalls of products that come from China because of the uptick of COVID in China and the factories being shut down. It’s also hard to imagine that Shehbaz Sharif, when the elections are conducted in 2023, that his party is going to fare terribly well. So, all of his political prospects are really going to rely upon the extent to which he continues to accommodate the Pakistan Army’s concerns. And I actually expect he will. When Nawaz Sharif was ousted, essentially by the Supreme Court, everyone was talking about, why don’t they just replace Nawaz Sharif with Shehbaz. Shehbaz has always had really good relations with the Pakistan Army. He has never had this antagonistic relationship that his brother had. So, we’ll see. You know, from my point of view, watching Pakistani politics is a little bit like watching basketball. I don’t bother watching it until the last three minutes because everything that you watch can change…
APR: Basketball has a fixed time and you can wait till the last three minutes. How do you know when the last three minutes…?
CF: I meant the Supreme Court. I know a lot of people were like all the Supreme Court is going to do this. And I’m like, you don’t know what the damn Supreme Court is going to do. Because, the Supreme Court really was a measure of what the Army wanted to do. If you understood that, then it was a foregone conclusion that they were going to uphold the no-confidence vote. So, yes, your point is you don’t know when it’s going to end. But for me, the denouement of this current drama will happen with the 2023 elections and then a new drama is going to begin.
APR: So you can watch the last few minutes of that…
CF: The last three minutes! I don’t know about you, but I’ve been watching Pakistani politics for 30 years. For the people, who are just new to it, it’s very fascinating, it seems unpredictable. And it seems like riding a wild roller coaster. But when you’ve been watching it for as long as I have, it’s not unpredictable. It’s very predictable. It’s always the same roller coaster. The only thing that’s changing are the individuals in it.