The twin cities​ of Islamabad and Rawalpindi represent the perfect inversion of the idea that military forces should be confined to barracks far from the seat of government, keeping the capital free for civil administration. Pindi is a busy contemporary metropolis. Right at its centre is the grand frontage of the Pakistani army’s general headquarters. The parliament, presidency, supreme court and federal ministries are in Islamabad, but as a city it is a sanitised appendage – from the security-controlled confines of the Red Zone to the little villas near Blue Area which house the well-connected. The symbolism could not be clearer: the army belongs at the heart of the country. Civilian politicians may play whatever games they wish, but only in the designated government compound.

The political dominance of Pakistan’s armed forces is a well-established fact. At their worst (three stints of military dictatorship since 1958), the country’s politics have seemed to be merely a surface reflection of deeper disturbances within the military hierarchy. Formal government has usually passed between two parties run by family dynasties: the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), both of which have made peace with military prepotency. As a result, Pakistan’s politics have looked like a tired game of musical chairs choreographed by the generals. Internationally, Pakistan has either been overshadowed by India, or packaged into the amorphous entity known as ‘AfPak’, which is no more than a battleground for other matters – ‘terrorism’, nuclear proliferation. Never mind if the fifth largest country in the world by population is governed like a tiny backwater: its domestic politics are better ignored.

This stale arrangement was subjected to a serious challenge by the rise of Imran Khan. In 2018, Khan became prime minister at the head of an insurgent party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Celebrity sportsman turned statesman, Khan self-consciously positioned himself as anti-elite. True, he attended Aitchison College, the Lahore school that educates Pakistan’s high society, but he claimed he had felt like an outsider there. Khan founded the PTI in 1996, though for many years the party was mainly a vehicle for his public appearances. His political rhetoric tacked between vague promises of a break with the past and half-hearted appeals to nationalists and religious conservatives. For the nouveau middle class, and much of the diaspora, this held considerable appeal. But it wasn’t until the 2010s, after it attracted the interest of the military establishment, that his project really took off. Khan entered government having pledged to overturn the old ways: to end corruption, reject a subordinate foreign policy, and stop the dynastic political merry-go-round.

As prime minister, however, Khan didn’t so much tip over the table as politely take a seat. He was a new face and had a surname that wasn’t Sharif, Bhutto or Zardari, but his government didn’t make a decisive break with the past. By 2022 successive economic crises had eroded his popular support. (He didn’t help matters by regularly using a helicopter to commute the short distance from his residence in Bani Gala to central Islamabad.) His time in power showed he had much in common with other faux-traditional nationalists: Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Kais Saied in Tunisia. Khan would prefer to be compared with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But on the critical question of military influence over national politics Khan, unlike Erdoğan, wasn’t in favour of excising the political power of the army, which stage-managed his election in 2018. In essence, he was a new frontman for the military-run state.

Like most of Pakistan’s heads of government since the 1970s, Khan soon fell out of favour with the generals. In April 2022 he was forced out of office after the ISI, the military-controlled intelligence agency, orchestrated a midnight no-confidence vote against him. There was also a botched assassination attempt. In May 2023 he was arrested, charged with corruption and leaking state secrets, and transferred to Adiala jail in Rawalpindi, before being sentenced to three, ten and then fourteen years’ imprisonment.

The story could have ended there. But despite his imprisonment and the suppression of his party Khan has since experienced an ambiguous revival in his fortunes. The sixteen-month stopgap government that took over after his removal presided over a slow-motion economic collapse aggravated by deadly floods. Inflation doubled and the country’s foreign reserves collapsed. Relieved of responsibility for Pakistan’s political, climatic and economic crises, Khan and his party have been reinvigorated. As prime minister he had steadily lost the popular support he once commanded. But as Prisoner 804, he was made over as a symbol of defiance against the Pakistani establishment.

The replacement government delayed the new elections demanded by the constitution, and they weren’t held until February this year. Khan was banned from the contest and his party’s candidates were forced to run as independents under a miscellaneous collection of electoral symbols – a teapot, a kettle, an aeroplane, a tent, a charpai – rather than the recognisable PTI cricket bat. TV networks were prohibited from mentioning Khan by name. PTI rallies were broken up by police with tear gas and truncheons. Despite this, party cadres worked tirelessly to whip up votes using WhatsApp groups and databases of potential supporters. But when the official results were announced they had obviously been manipulated. Counts had been doctored by the addition of a one or a zero to the tallies of favoured candidates. The election commissioner in Rawalpindi admitted that there had been massive rigging and that he had been involved in it (he was immediately arrested). Yet for all the measures taken against it, the PTI was still able to demonstrate remarkably strong support for its candidates, winning a plurality of the popular vote and 93 seats in the National Assembly. The cooked results ironically proved that in a fairer contest Khan would probably have won a large majority.

The election was meant to be a formality, if a travesty. Instead it was just a travesty. The leader of the PML-N, the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, had last year been allowed by the army to fly back to Pakistan from London to lead the charge against Khan and his movement. But he was forced to accept ignominious failure and cancelled his victory speech in Lahore. The army had tasked Nawaz with burying the PTI and he had failed. The job of cobbling together a government instead fell to his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who became prime minister. The new cabinet is filled with Shahbaz’s allies in the PML-N. But the weak showing for his party meant that he also needed the support of the PPP, which was able to finesse many of the most important constitutional positions – including the presidency, now held by the party’s leader, Asif Ali Zardari. On 20 February, Shahbaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari and his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, held a joint press conference, at which all three appeared exhausted, to announce the deal.

Inside Islamabad’s Red Zone, Khan was still the first subject of every conversation. Past the only police checkpoints with advertising sponsors that I’ve ever seen (this checkpoint brought to you by Wazir Fabrics), the National Assembly building on Constitution Avenue was holding the first meeting of parliament since the elections. Getting into the parliament took a little jugaad. Past the glass walls and doors of the foyer (helpfully labelled with red stickers that said ‘glass’), I was told I was carrying an old-style pass, which was true, even if it bore the correct date. The domed parliamentary chamber is carpeted in dusty red flecked with gold. The government planned to introduce some unpopular ordnances demanded by the IMF. But the session wasn’t going well. PTI members waving banners that said ‘Free Imran Khan’ got into the chamber. The leader of the opposition, Omar Ayub Khan, accused the PML-N of ‘selling Pakistan’. Some PTI members ripped up copies of the economic ordnances and threw them around. Others stuck to chanting ‘Who will save Pakistan? Imran Khan!’

After the session I visited Omar Ayub Khan in the garden of his family home on the north side of Islamabad. The grandson of Pakistan’s first military dictator, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, he joined the PTI a few months before its victory in the 2018 elections. In Imran Khan’s absence he has become the party’s most significant figure. The position has come at a cost. Despite their presence in parliament, Ayub Khan and many other PTI leaders are facing charges of terrorism and murder. Hundreds of party members are still in jail. Some appear to have been tortured. ‘I was charged with stealing police batons and a police scanning machine,’ Ayub Khan told me. ‘Even the judge laughed out loud.’ On the run from the authorities during the campaign, he was unable to visit his constituency. ‘I had to stay all over the place,’ he said. ‘I wore disguises and travelled between the houses of friends across the country.’ Three months before the vote, his father died; he managed to reach the funeral, but had to leave straightaway to avoid arrest.

Despite the repression and the rigging of the elections, Ayub Khan told me that the PTI was now focused on trying to make itself heard in parliament. ‘The question is whether this so-called government will be able to do anything,’ he said, ‘and the answer is no.’ Imran Khan alone, he said, could command a popular mandate. He didn’t expect the current government to last, and thought new elections would be necessary sooner rather than later. I asked him why, given the severity of the repression, he was working inside the system at all, and why he hadn’t been more critical of the military establishment. He said the PTI was ‘not anti-establishment’. Instead, it was ‘against the old way of doing things’ represented by the Sharifs and the Zardaris. The PTI, he said, wants power to lie with parliament and to put an end to a system of separate laws for haves and have-nots. When I asked whether that might necessitate cutting back the army’s influence he would say only that all institutions should operate according to the role the constitution gave them.

While the PTI was lodging its protests in parliament, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif was meeting with the army high command. One of Sharif’s close advisers told me openly that his colleagues were tense. ‘Shahbaz and the cabinet are all miserable and some even regret that they won,’ he said. ‘We call ourselves a democracy, but come on … and the people in cabinet aren’t up to it.’ He said the army was taking up more space than usual and had even installed ISI officers in district government offices. ‘Shahbaz will just stick to what Pindi says – he has a consistent view that this is just how the system has to work.’ Later, after the meeting with the army, Sharif announced that his government was committed to providing it with ‘all the resources required for ensuring operational readiness’, whatever fiscal austerity measures the IMF might insist on.

In the weeks after the elections Islamabad was consumed with horse-trading over Senate seats and the question of how much pain the IMF would demand. I went to meet Ahsan Iqbal, the new minister of planning, development and special initiatives. On the wall in the ministry was a quote from the American tyre tycoon Harvey Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in 1900: ‘The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.’ Iqbal has a reputation as an imperious figure in the PML-N and is used to keeping people waiting. When I sat down with his ministerial adviser and senior civil servants the talk was exclusively of Imran Khan and the nature of his appeal.

Iqbal blamed Pakistan’s problems on Khan’s time in government. Until 2018, he said, the country had experienced robust growth, thanks in part to revenues from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Khan had come in by ‘forced regime change’, causing the country to ‘go into a nosedive’. What was important now was righting past wrongs – and Shahbaz Sharif, Iqbal said, was fundamentally businesslike. ‘The single greatest mistake we as a country have made is not following an export-led growth model,’ he said. The new government would focus on exports, taking advantage of Pakistan’s Generalised System of Preferences status with the EU and its relationship with China. But for this to work would require ‘at least ten years of political continuity’. During Khan’s time, Iqbal faced corruption investigations, just as Khan now does. He spent two months in prison before being cleared. But he refused to recognise that Khan’s imprisonment was politically motivated. ‘As far as Mr Khan is concerned, he is facing some very serious allegations,’ Iqbal said. ‘He’s the one who has been saying corruption is a cancer and that anyone, however big or small, should be treated equally before the law.’

Pakistan’s political system has never had room for mass participation. Urbanites see the large southern provinces of Sindh and Balochistan as anachronistic feudal fiefs run by landowning ‘waderas’ and ‘sardars’. But the country’s political organisations are themselves more like fiefdoms than political parties. The PML-N (it isn’t generally a good idea for a political party to have the initial of its leader as part of its name) was historically the party of Punjab landowners and industrialists; the PPP has been a vehicle for agrarian interests. But they are now seen, accurately enough, as fronts for the Sharif and Bhutto-Zardari families respectively. Asif Ali Zardari, who returned to the presidency after the February elections, has openly run the PPP as a business – perhaps to the detriment of his son Bilawal’s ambitions. The Sharif family wealth had its origins in the steel business but its true source is the patrimony of political office.

Nawaz Sharif – Pakistan’s 12th (1990-93), 14th (1997-99) and 20th prime minister (2013-17) – has been the dominant figure in the PML-N for decades, despite spending much of his time in exile in London. At rallies during his failed return this year he would coo at audiences and ask whether they truly loved him. Bill Clinton once said that talking to Sharif on the phone you could practically hear him sweating. The Sharif brothers have kept any mutual acrimony far from public view, but there must be some. Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, who cultivates an air of slighted royalty, has become chief minister of Punjab; Ishaq Dar, the father-in-law of his second daughter, Asma, heads the foreign ministry. But the rest of the government now comprises Shahbaz’s team.

The clannish nature of the political parties is always on show. (In July 2023, Shahbaz Sharif’s two sons, Suleman and Hamza, were acquitted of money-laundering charges filed during Khan’s tenure.) But since the army retains ultimate power, the system in Pakistan is not truly oligarchic. The country’s agriculture and textile magnates have accepted a sandbox version of politics overseen by the army. Political leaders tend to vary their position on the subject of military influence. One faction will ritually celebrate the army’s removal of its opponents after suffering the same fate themselves. Politicians of all parties happily trade accusations that the other side uses Gate 4, the rear entrance to the army GHQ in Pindi, before themselves meeting the director general of the ISI to make the case for the number of seats they should ‘win’ at the next election.

Military leaders exert influence on politics in many countries. But in praetorian states the military and state apparatuses are intertwined. In Pakistan the military establishment is often referred to just as ‘the establishment’ (or in irreverent moods as ‘the boys’). Military officers can be found in every industry and on every state body – embassies, the board of the national airline, the Ministry of Railways, even women’s development organisations. The chairman of the National Database and Registration Authority is a lieutenant general. The army has controlled national politics since the 1950s, the decade after Partition. Every civilian leader who has attempted to interfere in its plans, or its lines of succession, from Benazir Bhutto to Imran Khan, has paid a price. In November 2022, in his valedictory speech, the army chief of staff, Qamar Bajwa, admitted to the ‘constant meddling by the army in politics for the last seventy years’, but said that a decision had been made to stop interfering. Seven months earlier Khan had been ousted with the ISI’s help.

The Pakistani army presents itself, and sees itself, as the guarantor of internal stability and national pride. But in practice the army has become less the guardian of the state than an heirloom the state is configured to protect. If Pakistan’s faux oligarchs are happy with this system and the rewards it provides, who can blame them? How wise of sheep to have acquired shepherds. But away from Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi the consequences of military dominance are keenly felt. Balochistan, in the south-west, makes up almost half of Pakistan’s landmass and suffers the worst military excesses. The status quo is maintained by means of repression, and political agitators are regularly disappeared. Home to formerly important US military bases (Pasni and Dalbandin were critical to operations in Afghanistan) and the Chinese-operated port of Gwadar, the majority of Balochistan remains badly underdeveloped. ‘I say this with regret but Balochistan has been treated as a colony,’ Abdul Malik Baloch, the leader of the National Party and the province’s former chief minister, told me. ‘They like the resources of Balochistan but they don’t like the people of Balochistan.’ In some respects, the province has served as a laboratory. The system of political manipulation perfected by the army in Balochistan has since been unleashed nationally on Khan’s PTI.

From Islamabad I travelled along a still half-built expressway to the Defence Housing Authority at the edge of Pindi. In a large development of gated residential compounds, military officers occupy large houses and are waited on by servants and landscape architects. I was there to meet a retired senior general at his personal residence. Former military officers had been told to keep their heads down unless explicitly authorised to speak (the brother of a former head of the ISI had been arrested the previous day), so the meeting had probably been approved by the military. The general explained Pakistan’s biggest problem, as he saw it: people were too idealistic about politics, failing to understand that the culture simply doesn’t support such ideals. ‘Unfortunately, we have never been able to develop any institutions in Pakistan. Neither our legislature is functional, nor our executive is delivering, nor our judiciary,’ he said. ‘And so as a result we end up looking for a messiah.’

It’s an open secret that Khan remains popular among the families of military officers, who feel he was less corrupt than the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris. I asked the general why the military establishment had helped Khan come to power in 2018 only to turn on him before his term was over. He said that the idea that Khan could be a very useful alternative to the two dominant parties emerged in 2011, after he held a major rally in Lahore which showed he could mobilise large numbers of supporters. ‘People were getting really fed up with the way money was wasted and siphoned away,’ he said, ‘and the idea was that Khan had more propriety and integrity.’ He told me the decision to bring Khan to power was really made by General Bajwa, and that the revelations in the Panama Papers of offshore holdings held in the names of Nawaz Sharif’s children provided the opportunity. ‘It was felt, especially by the youth, that a messiah had been found and that Imran Khan might actually stop all the corruption,’ he said.

By early 2022, however, the top generals had decided that Khan was too difficult to work with, and too unwilling to compromise on matters over which the army claims prerogative. After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, he demonstrated his inflexibility when he refused to negotiate with the army high command on allowing the US to run intelligence operations out of the consulate in Peshawar, or to establish some minor military installations in Pakistan. When he arrived in Moscow on 23 February 2022, Khan had no idea that Putin would launch his invasion of Ukraine the following day, but his decision to go ahead with their lunch – contravening a request by the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan – rankled with the Pakistani military. A diplomatic cable obtained by the Intercept, probably leaked by Khan, revealed that in March 2022 the US State Department official Donald Lu told the Pakistani ambassador that a move against Khan would mean ‘all will be forgiven in Washington’.

Khan still claims that the US was involved in the coup against him, claiming that the no-confidence vote which brought down his government in April 2022 was orchestrated by his domestic political enemies with US assistance. The State Department has dismissed this as baseless. But the leaked cables demonstrate that the US exerted at the least some modest pressure. Khan was never popular in Washington, in part because of his principled critique of the US drone assassination campaign. Early in his tenure, he tried to establish working relations with the US, but within a couple of years he was being denied invitations even to climate summits. After his removal, a lapsed military co-operation agreement was reinstated. The new army chief of staff, Asim Munir, was invited on official visits to Washington and London. But US priorities were clearly not the only factor in Khan’s fall. The former head of the ISI, General Asad Durrani, told me that the army had turned against Khan before the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the invasion of Ukraine. ‘The US expressed displeasure with Khan, but the move against him was planned before then – they were already working on it,’ Durrani said.

An alternative explanation for the army’s ditching of Khan rests on dynamics within the military hierarchy. Munir, who took over as chief of staff in November 2022, was a high-flyer who had held all the right positions in the central hierarchy. He had done his time in difficult posts in the northern frontier highlands. In 2018, two months after Khan was elected, he became director general of the ISI, the second most prestigious position in the military system. Eight months later he fell out with Khan and was controversially removed from the ISI and sent off to command the XXX Corps in Gujranwala. Soon after Khan’s removal, Munir was made chief of staff. When I asked the retired general about the grudge between Munir and Khan he left the room, returning a few minutes later to say that this was a myth and that the responsibility for the debacle entirely lay with Munir’s predecessor, General Bajwa. He acknowledged that the Khan situation was a mess. ‘Whenever the military moves in we don’t have an exit strategy,’ he said.

Jailing Khan is ultimately an attempt by the army to solve a problem of its own making. In the 2010s, the high command became concerned that the relationship between the PML-N and PPP was too cosy. In 2006 the two parties had signed the Charter of Democracy, which expressed opposition to the ‘military’s subordination of all state institutions’, briefly stepping out from the army’s shadow. Khan was seen as a way of keeping the main political factions in line. His scathing critique of the corruption of the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris, and his rhetorical rejection of overbearing American power, temporarily aligned with the army’s goals. When he was no longer useful the army dispensed with him. The riots that took place after his arrest on 9 May 2023, which targeted army officers (the house of the corps commander in Lahore Cantonment was broken into and his pet peacock stolen), were also seen as a line crossed. Munir took this as an attempt by Khan to provoke a coup within the army hierarchy.

The generals’ experiences of direct rule – under Zia-ul-Haq after 1977 and Pervez Musharraf after 1999 – have not been successful. Nor has the Pakistani army been able to knock together a façade political party of its own as the siloviki did in Russia. It has therefore returned to propping up the corrupt status quo duopoly it once sought to undermine. But the February elections showed how unstable this system has become, particularly given the stand-off between Munir and Khan. ‘The situation now is really one grave, two bodies,’ a former senior government minister told me. Dissatisfaction with the establishment has inevitably increased as a result of the atrocious state of Pakistan’s economy. The low but steady GDP growth of the 2010s has all but disappeared and the country’s fortunes have diverged from those of India and other regional states. Ten years ago, Pakistan’s GDP per capita was slightly higher than Bangladesh’s. It is now barely above half Bangladesh’s level. A child born in Pakistan is now twice as likely to die before the age of one as a child born in Bangladesh or India.

Pakistan remains a predominantly rural economy. Much of the workforce comprises cotton pickers, spinners, dyers, seamstresses and garment workers, who make clothes for export to the US and Europe. That is, if they are fortunate enough not to be working as bonded labourers in the rural brick kilns. The economy was hammered by the commodity price rises caused by Covid. Interest payments on debt have become so high they amount to more than half the government budget. The repeated IMF funding agreements – 23 IMF rescue packages since 1958 – have not helped. The elite in Islamabad’s F7 sector villas don’t notice price hikes in electricity, but most of the population does. The state barely collects enough taxes for roads and the army’s extravagances, let alone redistribution.

The generals’ answer to these problems has been to manage the government in backroom deals and to take on more economic planning themselves. In 2023, the army set up the Special Investment Facilitation Council, which puts army officers alongside civilian planners. Mushahid Hussain, a veteran politician and the former chairman of the Senate Defence Committee, told me he was in favour of the move. The army, he said, might be able to cut red tape and increase economic collaboration with China. But it remains very difficult to raise taxes. ‘The problem is you’re talking about a greedy and grasping elite,’ he said. ‘The sugar mafia, the cement cartel, are we willing to tax them? It’s hard when every prominent politician owns a sugar mill.’

Shahbaz Sharif’s new government is keen to cover over the cracks with international support. On 29 March, Joe Biden wrote to Sharif offering open conciliation: ‘Together, we will continue to forge a strong partnership between our nations, and a close bond between our people.’ Sharif must have appreciated the gesture, but that hardly justifies it. ‘The US and UK are prime villains in this story – they’ve legitimised what happened,’ Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, told me. The new government and the army high command hope that the international legitimation sticks. But the question of what to do with Imran Khan remains. For all its crudity, jailing political leaders is often an effective tactic. Yet Khan’s imprisonment has only increased his popular support.

On​ the north side of Main Margalla Road in Islamabad, past some Pepsi-branded police checkpoints, much of the land is given over to military ownership. On the south side of the road, in one of the city’s smartest sectors, I visited the new chairman of the PTI, Imran Khan’s well-dressed lawyer Gohar Ali Khan. He spends much of his time visiting Khan in prison to take political instructions. Like other PTI leaders, Ali Khan was a target of the campaign against the party. In the run-up to the February elections a dozen large men in uniform broke into his house on the pretence that they were following a fugitive who was hiding inside. They made a mess, handcuffed his children and pointed guns at his wife. Ali Khan told me that the PTI believed that the army should have no role in politics. But he also said the party saw the value of being ‘aligned with the establishment’. This mild criticism of military dominance may be understandable given the pressure the party is under. It is still hoping to finagle a way to get Khan out of prison. But the party’s complete lack of an economic reform programme is less justifiable. Ali Khan told me that it would follow from the establishment of a legitimate government. Only Imran Khan, he said, had the vision to take the country forward. But Khan didn’t make an attempt at economic reorganisation while in government, and his party’s politics remain vague.

The deeper problem is that Khan offered to redeem a system that is irredeemable. His imprisonment and the fraud and machinations designed to prevent him from returning to power are indefensible, but there is no sign that he would work to overturn the country’s systemic inequities were he to govern again. Khan could promise to eject the soldiers from the palace, reduce poverty, tax the rich, break out of the debt trap and replace military with social spending. He chooses not to. It would be comforting to say that Pakistan’s state model is a dysfunctional anachronism, awaiting its inevitable overthrow. But as a machine for managing conflicts within a putative oligarchy and maintaining a terribly exploitative and unequal status quo, it has proved durable. By the time I left Gohar Ali Khan’s elegant residence it was dark. Outside, a group of day labourers were chasing passing cars, begging for something to eat.

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