Pakistan on the edge, once again

Tumultuous Pakistan is once again is in the news for all the wrong reasons. That Pakistan seldom gets any happy tidings, except occasionally from cricket, hockey or kabaddi, is part of its gloomy heritage.

Pakistan’s charismatic cricketing legend and former PM Imran Khan, 70, survived a so-called assassination attempt on November 3 at Wazirabad, in Gujranwala province, while leading his hugely-attended Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s “Long March” to Islamabad. Imran suffered a gunshot injury on his lower right leg, while six others surrounding him were injured and one killed as the gunman (Mohammed Naveed, now in police custody) opened fire at his container-mounted truck. That, simultaneously, another burst of automatic fire also took place does point towards a larger conspiracy against Imran Khan. His popularity, after his government faced dismissal through a first-ever no-confidence motion in Parliament in early April 2022, continues to grow. Imran was Pakistan’s 22nd Prime Minister from August 2018 to April 2022.


The assassination attempt on Imran Khan was not an isolated incident. Pakistan’s first PM Liaquat Ali Khan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Gen. Zia-ul Haq and Benazir Bhutto all fell victim to violent deaths in one way or the other. No wonder that Sky News commented that “in Pakistan it seems there are only two ways Prime Ministers leave office — coups or assassinations”.


Soon after being treated for his gunshot wound, Imran Khan proclaimed that the assassination attempt on him was engineered by the troika of Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, interior minister Rana Sanaullah and senior intelligence official Maj. Gen. Faisal. However, both the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) and the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were quick to describe his accusations as “baseless and irresponsible allegations”. Imran Khan also counselled his bête-noire, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s Army chief, to keep his institution’s “black sheep” in check as the Army’s reputation was being adversely affected by such people.


Nevertheless, this eventful incident needs to be analysed, both in its internal and external ramifications for an increasingly unstable Pakistan. That Pakistan’s foreign policy in the past one year has seen roller-coaster complexities and its economic situation worsened gravely will be simply stating the obvious. More internal mayhem in Pakistan in the near future is a grim possibility.


Imran Khan, while in office, was reputed to be close to China, Turkey and marginally to Russia and Iran. That the United States did not take kindly to Imran’s frequent anti-American tirades is public knowledge. Imran Khan’s visit to Moscow and his meeting with President Vladimir Putin on the very day he launched his invasion of Ukraine was sternly frowned upon by the US. Thus, the Americans would have applauded (if not directly involved in) Imran’s ouster from Pakistan’s premiership as Washington too is looking for a strategic reset of its global geopolitical sway. Despite the decades-old mentorship and provision of liberal military and financial largesse to Pakistan, Islamabad was never a loyal protégé of Uncle Sam, especially in pursuit of US interests in the past three decades in neighbouring Afghanistan. When it comes to Pakistan, however, the Americans have consistently displayed a short memory.


Last month Gen. Bajwa, Pakistan’s COAS, made an unscheduled five- day visit to the US. The visit was apparently to mend fences with the US establishment, thank them for the $450 million F-16 deal for Pakistan and, importantly, to reassure the US that long-standing ties between the Pentagon and GHQ Rawalpindi will continue. Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif had recently said that “Imran Khan damaged Pakistan’s relations with the United States for no rhyme or reason”.


Importantly, Pakistan recently being taken off the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list could be ascribed to US influence on global institutions. That Pakistan is also making all-out efforts to please the US, especially during a period when its economy is in very dire straits, is understandable, and Imran Khan doesn’t fit anywhere in the current US-Pak bonhomie flirtations.


That Imran Khan, despite his ouster and considerable opposition from Pakistan’s political and security establishments, remains immensely popular in his country cannot be questioned. He and his PTI party are clamouring for a dissolution of the National Assembly, the ouster of the Shehbaz Sharif government and conduct of fresh elections, something which the Shehbaz Sharif-Bilawal Bhutto electoral alliance with the backing of the Army would like to scrupulously avoid. Hence, Pakistan appears to be on the road to political instability for some time ahead.


But it can look forward encouragingly to the patronage of both the US and China, whose bilateral relations are now at a low ebb. US President Joe Biden recently calling Pakistan “one of the most dangerous nations of the world” appears just a minor admonishment. News has also just come of a $ 14 billion bailout by China and Saudi Arabia. This fresh lease of life will only strengthen the hands of Pakistan’s “Deep State” and hardly bring succour to the long-suffering Pakistani public.


India has pragmatically adopted strategic autonomy as a major pillar of its foreign policy. As the world and our region face diverse challenges, India has to endeavour to steer clear of conflicting interests of different global powers. But to be of worthwhile geopolitical consequence, India must zealously strengthen the sinews of comprehensive national power to confront all the myriad and unpredictable challenges appearing on its horizon. India also has to factor in the simple reality that all Pakistani governments, of whichever political hue, have adopted near-similar anti-India policies, and this trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

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