Pakistan’s Democratic Future and Regional Security at Risk

The abortive arrest by military officers of Pakistan’s former prime minister, Imran Khan, on May 9, set off an explosion of anti-government protest that left at least 40 persons dead, hundreds wounded, and numerous government and military buildings burned to the ground. Khan’s populism has emerged as a direct challenge to the military-dominated Pakistani political establishment. The potential for destabilizing violence, including direct military intervention in the domestic political affairs of Pakistan, remains high. The angry response to Khan’s arrest serves as a warning to both the current government and Pakistani military that the former prime minister, and the grassroots populism he promotes, is not a force to be trifled with.

The ongoing drama regarding the political fate of Khan will, in many ways, define the future of Pakistani democracy. The government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif — who took office after Khan was ousted in April 2022 following a vote of no confidence — has filed numerous charges against Khan, including corruption and sedition, arguing that no one person is above the law. A conviction on any one of these counts, if Khan is found guilty, could put the former prime minister in prison for life or even subject him to capital punishment.

Khan, however, has maintained that these charges are part and parcel of a concerted campaign by Sharif and the army to neutralize him as a political force in Pakistan. Khan has linked his ouster in April 2022, an attempted assassination earlier this year, and his current legal problems to efforts by the military to undermine both him and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Khan, who himself was backed by the military in 2018, has been calling for snap elections, which he believes (and polls suggest) would see him returned to power with an overwhelming majority.

The relationship between the former Pakistani prime minister and Pakistan’s most influential and powerful institution — the military — is contentious. It underscores Khan’s assertion that what’s happening in Pakistan today is part and parcel of an effort by the military to undermine democracy by using force to intimidate the government and courts to neutralize Khan and the PTI party as a politically viable institution. The history of Pakistani military interference in domestic politics is real, with three coups in recent decades (1958, 1977 and 1988). The military has a history of applying constant pressure to Pakistani politicians through the threat of new interventions, acts of violence, and even political assassination and executions.

The Nuclear Question

Pakistan’s uncertain domestic political future has serious ramifications for regional and global security. As one of nine nations possessing nuclear weapons in the world today, Pakistan has a special responsibility to develop sound nuclear policies designed to limit the possibility of nuclear conflict as well as securing its own nuclear arsenal and materials.

Pakistan’s contentious relationship with India, another nuclear power, however, has raised questions about its nuclear posture. In his recent memoir, Never Give an Inch, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that, in his opinion, Pakistan and India were on the brink of nuclear conflict during a violent border clash that broke out in February 2019. Only the timely intervention of US diplomacy, Pompeo claims, averted the possibility of either side using nuclear weapons. According to Pompeo, the Indian government contacted him directly about their concerns that Pakistan was preparing its nuclear forces for use against India, prompting India to consider similar escalation. Interestingly, Pompeo stated that he bypassed the government of then-Prime Minister Imran Khan, and instead contacted who he called “the actual leader of Pakistan,” former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Pompeo’s claims underscore the tenuous state of democracy in Pakistan, where even the US recognizes the limits of authority of Pakistan’s democratically elected government. It also highlights the absolute control over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal by the army, and how any domestic political unrest in Pakistan that pits the people against the institution of the army creates the potential for inadvertent nuclear escalation — especially if the Pakistani military were to perceive a situation where it believed India was taking advantage of Pakistan’s domestic problems to gain a strategic advantage by positioning troops in contested areas along the border.

Of equal concern would be any situation where, due to massive public upheaval, the Pakistani military either lost control of some of its nuclear arsenal or weapons-grade nuclear materials to a mob seizing control of a storage facility, or elements within the Pakistani military, responding to the possibility of a collapse of the Pakistani government, took unilateral control of some or all of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, creating critical command and control problems that could prompt an Indian escalation and potentially spin out of control. Pakistan is believed to have a nuclear arsenal of more than 110 weapons and is likewise assessed as engaging in a major effort to produce fissile material, both in the form of highly enriched uranium as well as plutonium. That could more than double Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to some 250 weapons by 2025.

Security vs. Democracy

Pakistan is a nation confronting many serious domestic issues. This includes a collapsing economy, social inequities and political chaos, all of which combine to create a political tinder box, which threatens to ignite at any time. The current struggle between Khan and the Pakistani establishment — both the current Sharif government and the Pakistani military that backs him — is akin to a lighted match being held over the tinder box. Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities also mean its domestic problems are not just a matter of regional stability, but global security.

Arguably, any movement that can garner the support of two-thirds of the vote in a nationwide contest, as Khan plausibly claims, would be seen by those forces that ostensibly champion democracy — including the US — as being the rightful holder of political power. But at a time when issues of nuclear proliferation dominate global security concerns, the leaders of the democratic world not surprisingly appear to be far more interested in promoting regional stability than backstopping historically weak democratic principles in Pakistan.

Pompeo’s memoir casts a revealing light, too, on who the US sees as the so-called “actual leader of Pakistan,” the Pakistani military. Khan’s popularity suggests, however, that the days of the military’s consequence-free interference in the country’s domestic affairs may be numbered. While the future of Khan is uncertain and plagued by prospects of personal peril, so, too, is the future of the unquestioned suzerainty of the military over the political lives of the Pakistani people.

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