Pakistan and COVID-19 Pandemic: Is the Army Taking Advantage?
Ever since the first Corona infected case was reported on February 23 in Sindh province of Pakistan and its spread to the other regions - Islamabad, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), the authorities asked for army’s help to contain the spread of the virus. Instead of getting the virus directly from China, Pakistan got the infection when thousands of Pakistani pilgrims and businessmen returned from Iranian cities -- Mashhad and Qom, where the shrine of Imam Reza is located. Till that time, although hundreds of thousands of Pakistani students were studying in China and 60,000 Chinese nationals were working in 400 Chinese companies, including CPEC projects, in Pakistan, the Imran Khan government did not shut down the air services with China while Wuhan witnessed the rapid spread of Coronavirus since the mid-January by showing solidarity with Beijing (South China Morning Post, March 04).
Why the Army’s help?
Unlike other countries, Pakistan did not declare full lockdown from the outset due to economic factors. In a statement, Prime Minister Imran Khan stated that “his government did not have the capacity to take care of 25 per cent of the population which is under the poverty line if a lockdown was implemented.”(Gulf News, March 22). However, one Pakistani analyst argues that “industrialists of this country are trying to convince the top leadership” against the full lockdown. Therefore, there were three objectives to engage the army. First, implementing partial lockdown by the provincial security forces was not possible. Initially, that was experimented. As the number of infected cases escalated to more than 700 cases with newer areas by March 23, the government asked for army’s help for effective execution of the partial lockdown.
Second, since the army has been the most powerful and influential institution, the Imran Khan government wanted to neutralise the growing business lobby, which gives priority to their profit than national interest. The business houses lobby could not sustain against the government’s decision once the army was involved.
Third, as seen in other cases, political classes in the developing countries often use state forces to keep themselves safe from public criticism; in case the crisis goes out of control and the tragedy escalates. In this case, Imran Khan knew that his policy towards containing the virus would not be successful with the partial lockdown. Therefore, by engaging the army no one would be critical to that. At the same time, the government could pass the bug on to the army to keep itself safe from public criticism.
Fourth, in the pretext of the Corona crisis, the army got an opportunity to undertake clandestine operations against the Baloch rebel groups, which was otherwise not possible during a normal period. Last but not the least, since the formation of the Imran Khan government, not a single important decision has been taken by the government without the approval of the army. It would be noted that in December 2019, General Bajwa was granted three years extension despite strong resistance from seven top army Generals and Supreme Court chief justice. From the army’s point of view, this is an opportunity to take part in internal politics, while Prime Minister Imran Khan is being challenged both from his own party and the opposition parties on sugar scam issues. Amidst the Corona crisis, Prime Minister Imran Khan undertook a major cabinet and senior official level reshuffle on April 06, 2020. (Gulf News, April 06) The army was also not convinced of the way the Imran Khan government was handling the Corona crisis. In a statement on March 23, it said: “The threat we face is very different and the likes of which the world has not seen before”. (Gandhara, April 07).
Is the Army taking advantage of the situation?
The role of the Pakistan Army in the internal and external matters is not new. Despite adopting Parliamentary democracy, the army has been playing a vital role in the formation and dissolution of an elected government in Islamabad. The Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) coalition government is one of them. In 2018, the PTI was mandated to bring changes in the governance system, offer a corruption-free government and rapid economic development. After 20 months, the government has failed to keep its promises. The economic condition of the country is in bad shape. According to the latest report from the State Bank of Pakistan, the country’s entire debt has “risen to Rs. 33.4 trillion” (around $200 billion) (The Diplomat, April 15).
Moreover, since the PTI took the help of the army, the later has increased its footprints in all aspects of the governance. For example, first, as the economic crisis deepened last year, Pakistan Army Chief General Bajwa had a meeting with top business leaders to fix the economic crisis. Second, the army played as a saviour of Imran Khan government while an anti-government protests march led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) party, carried out Azadi March (Freedom March) from across the country to Islamabad. The army then had warned that “Nobody would be allowed to create instability as the country cannot afford chaos”(The Nation, November 02, 2019). Third, as far as Pakistan’s foreign and neighbourhood policy was concerned, the army was consulted extensively in Afghanistan peace process, highlighting J&K issues at the UN and strengthening diplomatic relations with China, Russia and the US. During the Afghanistan peace negotiation between the US and the Taliban, the top US’ officials’ and Taliban leaders had ensured to meet General Bajwa during their visits to Islamabad other than formal meetings with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister of Pakistan. Fourth, the army was critical of the government’s failure to contain the Coronavirus and it extended all possible support to implement the national lockdown, which was not taken seriously by the ruling party. A large number of religious leaders openly challenged national lockdown and asked people to join the Friday prayers.
Although the performance of Imran Khan’s government has not been impressive over the last 20 months, there seems to be no imminent threat to that. Since the army is committed to not to allow any political instability in the country during the double crisis (economic and Corona) and at the same time, it has been acting as a ‘de facto’ ruler, it would prefer the continuation of this government with some modifications in the current governance structure. At the same time, the army’s option for an alternative government to the PTI is limited due to leadership problems with the political parties like PML-N and the PPP. Most importantly, off late, Pakistan’s relationship with the US has improved in the post-Afghanistan peace agreements. Therefore, the US would prefer the continuation of the current set up in Islamabad for the successful implementation of the agreement and political stability in Afghanistan.
Views expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency or Institutions.
This article is part of the South Asia Conflict Monitor, April 2020.