In Pakistan, the Army Tightens Its Grip

As military expenditure soars in Pakistan despite an unprecedented economic catastrophe, Khan’s power looks to be waning.

Pakistan Army and Coronavirus
Soldiers keep watch as police seal off a neighborhood after some residents tested positive for the coronavirus in Islamabad on April 30. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

Pakistan has faced an unprecedented set of challenges this year—from a locust invasion that threatened to infest 40 percent of the agrarian economy’s major crops to a pandemic that brought business activity to a grinding halt, prompting layoffs, falling household incomes, and a decline in purchasing power.

But when Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration unveiled the federal budget for the fiscal year 2020-2021 last month, a response to those calamities was nowhere to be seen. The budget allocated 1.29 trillion rupees ($7.7 billion) to defense expenditure, an 11.8 percent increase from last year’s budget and almost 18 percent of the total budget. Health, on the other hand, received 25 billion rupees ($148.6 million) in the central budget. Even after provincial governments stepped in to allocate an additional 467 billion rupees ($2.7 billion), health spending totaled a third of the military budget. As opposition Sen. Sherry Rehman said in a tweet, this is “not a national #budget for a country facing a crisis.”

Islamabad’s excessive defense funding, and failure to account for the country’s already stressed health infrastructure, isn’t simply an oversight. The latest budget would have been an apt time to push for much needed equitable resource allocation and a bigger development budget—more than 40 million Pakistanis are living in a state of food insecurity, and hospitals across the country are buckling as they cope with an influx of coronavirus patients. But Islamabad’s excessive defense funding, and failure to account for the country’s already stressed health infrastructure, isn’t simply an oversight. Rather, it is indicative of the military’s influence over the government and the weak government’s reluctance to push back.

Despite poor testing, there have been nearly 240,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Pakistan and almost 5,000 deaths—figures scientists estimate are more likely in the millions and tens of thousands respectively. Already, at least 5,000 health care workers have tested positive for the coronavirus since the outbreak began, and 65 have died. At the same time, growing mistrust and government-propagated misinformation—Khan and his aides have routinely dismissed the coronavirus as the flu—have resulted in medical workers being assaulted by frustrated patients. Khan runs a precariously balanced government where his party holds only 46 percent of seats in the National Assembly and is reeling from the shambolic aftereffects of a poorly managed coronavirus response—one of which seems to be widening military influence in day-to-day government operations.

Armies have been played a critical role in emergency responses across the world: The Australian state of Victoria called for military assistance after a spike in coronavirus cases in June, and in Italy, Spain, and South Africa, soldiers patrolled the streets to enforce lockdowns. But in Pakistan, where the military has long wielded immense power and sometimes seized direct control, such efforts indicate more than civic mindedness. “I think there’s an additional factor at play right now,” said Arif Rafiq, the president of New York-based Vizier Consulting. “The Army is filling a void in areas in which it perceives Imran Khan’s government and the civil administration to be weak.”

There are growing signs that control of the government is sliding fast out of Khan’s hands. A host of retired and serving Army officers sit in prominent government roles, and the military (along with the Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s politically influential and conservative intelligence service) has been overseeing the government’s coronavirus response. It was the military that called for a countrywide lockdown on March 23, a day after Khan opposed it. Retired Lt. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa is now the prime minister’s communications advisor, and the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) set up to manage the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is run by Army Lt. Gen. Hamood Uz Zaman Khan. Subsequently, the health ministry has been relegated to a largely advisory role in decision-making, having to rely on institutions such as the military-led NCOC and the National Disaster Management Authority, also run by a general.

Undoubtedly, the military’s expanding footprint doesn’t bode well for the country’s feeble democracy or its citizens, particularly since neither Khan’s government nor the military seems to have paid heed to World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations. Official numbers of coronavirus infections soared dramatically after Pakistan lifted its nationwide lockdown on May 9, citing economic concerns—a move criticized by WHO and by the country’s medical fraternity. In a letter addressed to the government in early June, WHO recommended intermittent lockdowns of target areas, adding that the country’s health system should be able to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact.” (On Wednesday, the government finally announced it was imposing 227 smaller “smart lockdowns.”) Now, many hospitals in the country are full. “Shockingly, even the specter of hundreds of thousands of deaths is insufficient to convince the military and civilian establishment to allocate a greater share of scarce public resources toward life-saving welfare,” said Ammar Rashid, a public health researcher based in Islamabad. “As with every other aspect of Pakistan’s pandemic response, cold calculations of power and patronage have taken precedence over the critical health and economic needs of the public.”

In a country where democracy has often been interrupted by military coups, it is ironic that a government allegedly backed by the military (word on the street when Khan won election in July 2018 was that he was the military’s favored candidate, a notion he was quick to deny) is now fighting for survival. The budget debacle was followed by yet another catastrophic scandal—just one month after a plane crash that killed 98 people, 150 out of 434 pilots working for national carrier PIA were found to have “bogus or suspicious licenses.” On June 28, Khan hosted a dinner at his residence for his advisors and parliamentarians that read like a last hurrah. Over plates of pulao and mutton handi, he assured them that his government would complete its term. Two days later, on the floor of the National Assembly, however, Khan quoted Charles Dickens and hinted at his possible departure. “No one remains in power forever,” he said.

For now, things remain uncertain in Islamabad. While there has been talk of a “minus one” formula—suggesting Khan’s removal as prime minister—it is unclear how this will impact his party’s already fragile National Assembly majority. But one conclusion is certain: Those caught in the crossfire of the government’s waning power and the military’s gradual attempts at taking control will be far removed from politics and the hallowed halls of the National Assembly. With the festival of Eid-ul-Adha right around the corner, Pakistan is likely to witness another surge of coronavirus cases—a catastrophe the country is not ready to bear. In the southwestern city of Gujrat, Tamkenat Mansoor, a physician at a local public hospital, is already sounding alarm bells. “Within a few weeks, our hospitals are going to reach maximum capacity,” she said. “Eventually, the coronavirus is going to turn into another case of polio for Pakistan. The world will have eradicated it, and we will be the only ones still struggling.”

Zuha Siddiqui is a freelance journalist.

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