Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan addresses the nation on June 1, 2020. Image: YouTube

An open tussle between Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa over a spy agency appointment has sparked a political crisis that some have speculated could trigger yet another military coup.

While Khan recently backed down and agreed to appoint the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) director general candidate nominated by Bajwa, the crisis is far from over and points to political instability ahead. On Tuesday, Khan agreed to appoint Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum to the post after days of resisting Bajwa’s preference.

Khan had preferred to retain Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, who helped him win at the 2018 elections and was pivotal in recent interactions with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, in the powerful position.

Analysts believe Khan wants Hameed to replace Bajwa as army chief when the latter retires in 2022, a key appointment of a loyalist who would be expected to help Khan consolidate his grip on power beyond 2023 elections. Hameed will remain in the powerful post until November 20.  

Tensions between Khan and the army top brass have been exacerbated by rising criticism the army faces from the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which has accused the military of having undue influence in and over Khan’s government.

Forced to weather political and popular storms, including over the government’s mismanagement of the economy, Bajwa’s army has gradually but decidedly distanced itself from Khan and his ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in recent months.

That, in turn, has pushed Khan to seek new sources of political support from within the wider military establishment. That explains his at least temporary insistence that Hameed stay atop ISI, a move that showed his plan to push his preferred candidate for army chief.

Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, shown before the start of the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2019. Photo: AFP / Farooq Naeem

It has all broken down the until now prevailing narrative that Khan’s government is a civil-military “hybrid”, despite his rise through democratic elections in 2018.

His government has been sharply criticized for accommodating the military’s interests, including by packing key civilian institutions and agencies with former and current military officials.

But the PTI’s perceived mismanagement of the economy, where inflation over the last three years has broken a 70-year record with electricity rates up 57%, edible ghee 108%, sugar 83%, and petrol 49%, has allowed the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PLM-N)-led opposition to shift part of the blame onto the military itself.

Khan’s perceived direct meddling into military appointments, considered to be the army chief’s sole prerogative, has broken the hybrid arrangement’s earlier balance and sparked speculation that the army could stage a coup to unseat an increasingly unpopular government.  

Civilian-army tussles over military appointments have triggered coups in the past. In 1999, then-premier Nawaz Sharif’s interventions in military affairs sparked Pervez Musharraf’s coup, which resulted in a decade-long period of military rule.

Chief of Army Staff Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s “Operation Fair Play” overthrow of Zulfikar Bhutto’s civilian government in July 1977 was staged due to similar civil-military tensions. But despite similarities with Khan’s recent move on the military, the situation this time could be different for several reasons.

For one, the army no longer has any constitutional means of political legitimacy. In 1977 and 1999, both Zia and Musharraf were able to get the Supreme Court of Pakistan to legitimize their coups.

However, in 2010, the 18th constitutional amendment specifically eroded (Article 6) the power of Pakistan’s superior judiciary to legitimize coups, declaring that anyone, including the judiciary, aiding or collaborating with such an act shall be guilty of “high treason” punishable by the death penalty.

Supporters of the All Pakistan Muslim League, the party of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, shout slogans as they take part in a protest after a special court’s verdict against him in Karachi on December 17, 2019. Photo: AFP / Asif Hassan

Secondly, the present crisis does not present an existential crisis to the military as an institution. As one PML-N parliamentarian told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity, “Khan’s purpose (unlike Nawaz Sharif) is not to de-politicize the army but to secure a specific ISI chief – and an army chief in 2022 – who can help him win the next general elections due in 2023.”

“The present crisis”, as a senator from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), who requested anonymity, reiterated, “is unlikely to turn into a mass struggle against the army’s political domination.”   

The senator added: “The fact that the PTI has not reached out to the opposition to build a popular, mass-based political movement against the military shows (a) why Imran Khan is not looking to put the army into a corner, and (b) why the army is unlikely to see this crisis as one threatening its long-term institutional autonomy and interests,” that would require resolution through a coup.

At the same time, the opposition has viewed the crisis more as an opportunity to weaken the PTI government, rather than attack the military, before the next elections.

“The opposition’s narrow, short-term objectives are directly helping the military’s long-term politics”, said a former senator of the Awami National Party (ANP)”, adding that “the army has many options other than a coup to break the PTI government from within.”

The PTI is sitting atop a loose coalition of parties, many of which are known to have strong ties with the military.

The Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid (PML-Q), which is the PTI’s coalition partner in Punjab province, was Musharraf’s chief political party during his 9 years of dictatorial rule. “If it decides to pull out of the coalition, the PTI government will crumble on its own,” added the PML-N leader.

At the same time, “it remains that the army, using the pro-military forces present both within the PTI and coalition parties, can force an in-house change” by agitating to replace Khan with a more pliable leader from within the PTI, added the above-mentioned PPP leader.

Similarly, the army can trigger other political crises to force Khan to scale down his perceived meddling in military affairs.

The fact that the far-right Islamist Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is once again mobilizing against the PTI government “shows how the ‘behind the scenes’ hands are playing the game of politics” according to a member of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan-Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F) political party in referring to the military’s often hidden political influence.

Activists and supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a religious party, shout slogans beside empty tear gas shells fired by police during an anti-France demonstration in Islamabad on November 16, 2020. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

The TLP owes its existence to the Pakistan army itself when, as I wrote in a previous Asia Times story. In 2018, the military allowed TLP to stage a massive sit-in in Islamabad to destabilize the then-PML-N government.

Pakistan’s army has a record of destabilizing civilian governments through religiopolitical outfits. In the 1970s, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) was used to destabilize Zulfikar Bhutto’s government. In the late 1980s, the ISI funded the Islamic Democratic Alliance (IDA) as a counter-mobilization force against the PPP government of Benazir Bhutto.

In this context, “the re-emergence at this particular stage of an organization that the PTI government itself banned a few months ago is part of a project that aims to weaken the Khan government just enough for the army to remold its political ambitions in ways it can manage without committing high treason,” the JUI-F member added.

Faced with potential multiple assaults from “invisible forces” while still at war with the opposition, Khan is unlikely to withstand the pressure without making crucial compromises to the military, a fact that was plain to see in his surrender on the ISI appointment.

That likely means the military won’t need to stage a coup to preserve its political interests, though Khan’s next move vis-à-vis the top brass will likely make the difference between instability and stability in the weeks and months ahead.