Has Imran Khan Managed To Subvert The Military's Internal Cohesion?

Has Imran Khan Managed To Subvert The Military's Internal Cohesion?
Two factors make the internal cohesion of the Pakistani military an abiding concern for world powers including the United States, Russia and China—despite growing military tensions between Washington and the uncomfortable alliance of Moscow and Beijing. The first and foremost concern is the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and the second concern is related to interests of the big powers in counterterrorism activity from inside Pakistani territory.

Only an internally and organizationally cohesive military could ensure that Pakistani nuclear weapons remain under the tight control of Pakistan’s legally constituted forces. Only a cohesive military organization could maintain a coherent counterterrorism strategy and mount consistent efforts to defeat militant and terror groups, which include indigenous Pakistani organizations and regional terror groups composed of disgruntled citizens from regional countries, on Pakistani territory and in Afghanistan.

These will precisely be the focus of world capitals – as they wait to see whether the Pakistani military continues to exist as a cohesive force in the days and weeks to come, in the face of growing political violence and concerted attempts on the part of political actors to create a wedge among the senior Pakistani military leadership.

In simpler words, when Imran Khan told a foreign correspondent - video clips of which went viral on social media - that Army was being maligned just because of one man, a direct reference to the incumbent COAS General Asim Munir – he was targeting the cohesion of the military command. Within hours, the DG ISPR appeared on a television screen to tell viewers across the country that the military was united under the command of the COAS, General Asim Munir and creating divisions within the army would remain an unfulfilled dream of “miscreants.”

PTI activists and rioters burned the Corps Commander's house in Lahore to ashes. GHQ was attacked, as were several military installations across the country. All of this happened within hours of Imran Khan’s arrest on May 9, 2023. A PTI led social media campaign later ensued, which was based on rumors that a large number of army officers have resigned from their ranks and posts following the unrest and incidents of violence in the country. Major attacks on military installations were carried out in two cities of Punjab, Lahore and Rawalpindi, which are considered the house of the Punjabi middle class, which is most likely to send their sons to the military’s officer corps.

Imran Khan, since his ouster from power, has been playing on this theme to project himself as being in control of a constituency within the military’s rank and file. Many were impressed by Imran Khan’s rhetoric when a large number of retired army officers’ public expressed their sympathy for Khan’s cause. Secondly, while General Bajwa was serving as COAS, several media reports indicated that Imran Khan was emerging as a favorite among young officers in the military.

Pakistan’s two leading political leaders, both Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, have focused on Central Punjab as the pivot of their agitational politics since 2017. Both were familiar with the fact that the military's officer corps is primarily recruited from Central Punjab. Some analysts even point to the fact that both these leaders tried to influence the officer corps with their narrative, when they tried to combine their anti-Bajwa stance with highly nationalistic and pro-Army sloganeering. For instance, since the attack on the Corps Commander’s house and GHQ, Imran Khan has repeatedly made the statement that claims, “This is my army and this is my country.” Maryam Nawaz Sharif, while campaigning in central Punjab on behalf of her father, has also made similar comments.

The Pakistan military doesn’t exist on some isolated planet. Its officer corps is highly socialized and there are no chances that it would remain immune from the continuous and persistent political upheaval that started around August 2014. Since the military is just like a closed society, we can’t be sure what is going on inside the organization.

Two kinds of reports have kept appearing in local media during the past year. The first kind depicts a deep-seated division in the General Staff in the three to four months immediately preceding the appointment of Chief of the Army Staff in November 2022. Information contained in these reports was sketchy and ambiguous, but nevertheless indicated divisions within the general staff. Besides media reports, Islamabad was rife with rumors about such divisions. The second kind of reports appeared over social media, indicating a high level of support for Imran Khan in the officer corps of the Pakistani military. Besides these reports, which are not at all reliable, there are no other signs of any cracks within the ranks of the Pakistani military.

Military discipline is not only ensured by the organizational cohesion that is inculcated at every level in the rank and file, there is also a wide intelligence network that ensures the security of the military’s organizational structures at all levels, according to a military official. It would be wrong to suggest that historically, the Pakistani military organization had never experienced cracks in its ranks and file. Two incidents include a near mutiny in the officer corps after the 1971 debacle, when Pakistan’s land forces surrendered before a victorious Indian Army in what is now Bangladesh. The second incident is related to the events of the 1977 agitation against the Bhutto government, when several officers refused to open fire on protestors in Lahore. This, however, was not an incident of disobeying the command of their military superiors, but a refusal to listen to the demands of the civilian government of Prime Minister Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto, which in any case was dismissed months later by a military coup.

A direct confrontation between military troops and activists of a popular political party, and much feared ensuing large scale violence in the urban centers of the country could possibly be cited as one factor that could test the endurance of the military organization against possible breakdown of discipline. The PTI is a party of Punjabi and Pashtun middle classes - social classes from which most of the officer corps of the Pakistani military are drawn and recruited. The level of violence that Pakistani streets would witness in the days and months ahead could impact the organizational cohesion of the Pakistani military. The Pakistani government has decided to deploy military troops in major cities in a situation which is highly volatile and unstable. Keeping political violence low will serve everybody’s interests.

In the meantime, there are festering political problems that remain unsettled—problems which could impact the situation inside the military organization. Apparently, the military high command and the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice are supporting opposing sides in the ongoing political conflict. The Chief Justice and the cryptic ‘welcome’ that he offered to Imran Khan during a court hearing, apparently delivered the required results for Imran Khan, who was granted an unprecedented blanket bail by the apex court.

In this way, the PML-N government, or maybe the military high command’s, plans to keep Imran Khan behind bars for a while were thwarted. This was not the end of the conflict, however, the most militant of the ruling coalition partner, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman announced that he would lay siege to the Supreme Court for protecting an accused. He also threatened violence if he was met with violence.

Everyone concerned about Pakistan’s political future should monitor the level of violence in the streets and the military's organizational cohesion. It is not only in the interest of world powers to see the Pakistani military existing as a militarily cohesive force.

It is in the vital interest of Pakistan’s society and political system that cohesion of the military should remain strong. Petty political interests should not be allowed to play with fire.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.