1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

How is Pakistan's military looking at political turmoil?

Haroon Janjua Islamabad
May 20, 2022

Pakistan's economy is a shambles, and the political chaos, even after the ouster of former PM Imran Khan, is far from over. How long can the country's powerful military remain neutral?

Former PM Imran Khan (right), army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa (center), and others at a military parade in Islamabad on March 23 to mark Pakistan's National Day
Since his ouster, former PM Khan has been accusing the military of backing his opponentsImage: Anjum Naveed/AP/picture alliance

After populist Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted from power last month in a no-confidence vote in parliament, he upped the ante on his political rivals, and even the country's military generals, whom he indirectly accuses of supporting his opponents.

The military has categorically denied these allegations.

Khan has been holding massive political rallies across the country and has called for early elections. He believes his current popularity, largely due to his allegations that Washington spearheaded his removal, could help him sweep the next polls.

Currently, Shehbaz Sharif of the center-right Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party is at the helm, but he is struggling to deal with a deteriorating economy, rising inflation and the devaluation of the rupee.

The incumbent government blames Khan for mismanaging the economy during his three-and-a-half year rule. But Khan has been able to divert attention from economic issues by using the tried-and-tested anti-West sloganeering.

Governance issues

The stakes are high, more so for the South Asian country's powerful military, which has repeatedly said that it should not be forced into political issues.

Pakistan faces uncertain future

"The military always stands with the incumbent government. We supported Khan's government but we don't want to be dragged into political matters," a security official familiar with the situation told DW.

Sharif and his aides have also warned Khan against pressuring the military. The new administration says it wants to undertake several electoral reforms and fix the economy before it calls a general election, possibly by the end of the year.

"Khan is a failed politician who destroyed the country's economy. He was voted out constitutionally but he is spinning false narratives to hide his poor performance as premier," Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a former prime minister and a senior official in Sharif's party, told DW.

Security concerns

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says that the military is wary of the crisis.

"It has a core interest in internal stability. This means that extended political turmoil is problematic, especially if it has the risk of descending into violence. And given just how highly charged and hyper polarized the current political environment is, violence certainly can't be ruled out," he said.

Pakistan shares borders with Iran, Afghanistan, China and India, and the security situation along its borders is a matter of concern for the army generals. Militant attacks close to the Afghan border and separatist activities in Pakistan's western Balochistan province have risen considerably in the past few months.

Pakistan finance minster brands Ukraine war 'bigger crisis than COVID'

The security situation for the country, and changing regional and global geopolitical dynamics, are disturbing for Pakistan's security establishment, analysts say.

"The military is apolitical but it is concerned about the economic crisis, which is linked to [the country's] security," the security official said.

Experts say that Khan is aware of these dynamics, but will he try to bring down the political temperature?

"If Khan keeps his comments about the military in check, that'll help him start rebuilding his relations with them," according to Kugelman.

Is military intervention an option?

For many supporters of the former premier, military rule is more acceptable than having Sharif in power, whom they accuse of corruption and nepotism.

They believe that a delay in elections could dent Khan's reelection prospects.

"There is absolutely no chance of a direct military intervention," the security official told DW.

Analysts also say that the military generals do not want to get involved at a time when the economic crisis is spiraling out of control.

"I don't expect a direct military intervention. The military has no interest in being burdened with the responsibilities of direct governance," said Kugelman.

"If the political turmoil yields to unrest and there is sustained political violence, then all bets would be off and one wouldn't want to rule out the possibility of a coup," he added.

Ayesha Siddiqa, an independent security analyst and strategic affairs expert, said that "a direct intervention is always an option, but so far things are fairly manageable."

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Haroon Janjua
Haroon Janjua Journalist based in Islamabad, focusing on Pakistani politics and societyJanjuaHaroon