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Why Pakistan Always Seems on the Brink of Collapse

The military has spent decades trying to impose order on Pakistani politics. It has led to chaos.

By Ahsan I. Butt

August 2022 

Even by Pakistan’s standards, 2022 has been a difficult year. In the last four months, the country has fallen victim to severe political and economic crises, each almost entirely self-inflicted. The government has already changed hands once — and may do so again in a matter of months, if not weeks. As the economy teeters on the brink of collapse, Pakistan continues to hurtle toward an uncertain future, led by an utterly unserious elite unable to grasp the enormity of the challenges facing the country.

For political scientists, Pakistan is an excellent case study to highlight the tragedy of military-dominated governments specifically, and authoritarian ones more generally. There is widespread consensus among scholars that representative democracy, while not flawless, imbues states with a greater chance of long-term political stability than its alternatives. Of course, not everyone shares this belief. Indeed, many associate the fractiousness, unpredictability, and pendulum swings of democratic systems as inherently unstable. A benevolent dictator, goes the folk wisdom, can lead a country to its full potential better than bitterly divided partisans in parliament can.

Pakistan’s military is no stranger to such paternalistic thinking. Doubtless, its deep and abiding control of the country comes with instrumental benefits — land, status, golf club memberships, and other perks. But at its root, the military’s influence over, and interference in, politics since at least the 1950s stems from the supercilious belief that the “bloody civilians” — the corrupt, venal, shortsighted, and principle-free lot of politicians — if left to their own devices will mire the country in a state of permanent chaos.

The army has repeatedly acted on this condescension for the constitution, launching coups and officially running the country for half its existence. The other half? If anything, in such periods the army has been more nefarious, pulling strings seen and unseen, controlling its imperatives — security and foreign policy primarily, but not exclusively — and casting an imposing shadow. Times of nominal democracy in Pakistan, though few and far between, are remarkable for a degree of military influence over politics that would make Samuel P. Huntington blush.

Whether directly in power or stage-managing events from behind a curtain, the military has sought order. The tragic irony of its quest, however, is the extent to which it has sown chaos. As scholars of democracy know, the greatest payoff of democratic systems is not fast economic growth or progressive social policies, but rather the certainty that the transfer of power from one government to another will be peaceful and predictable.

Pakistan, by contrast, sees transitions that are anything but. This is a country where governments have ended with the loss of half the country in a genocidal civil war (1971), a mysterious plane crash killing the president (1988), midnight coups, daytime coups, and backroom deal-making among factionalized elites. This list connotes many things, but orderliness is not one of them.

The Political Crisis

Events this year followed a familiar playbook. Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed from office on April 10, halfway through his tenure. The military had tired of the civilian whom it had anointed as the public face of the “hybrid regime” — a regime that was, in reality, ruled by the military despite its label. Khan had been installed in power via a rigged election in 2018 following a decade of rule by parties that the military abhorred: the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from 2008 to 2013 and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) from 2013 to 2018. The goal of the so-called hybrid regime was to avoid a repeat of the previous ten years, which had been deemed by scholars as the beginning of democratic consolidation but by Pakistan’s military establishment as disastrously tumultuous. In theory, moving forward, the military and civilian authorities would be on the same page.

In practice, the military was delivered a lesson it had been taught before — by Nawaz Sharif (former leader of the PML-N) in the 1990s and by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (founder of the PPP) decades earlier: No one ambitious enough to become prime minister or president will be content playing junior partner for long. Eventually, the military establishment’s favorite son will spread his wings beyond the narrowly circumscribed role bequeathed to him. And then what?

The army and Khan had gotten along just fine when it came to jailing political opponents, activists, or journalists. But in the latest iteration of this familiar story, the breakup between Khan and the military establishment was precipitated by a disagreement over who, exactly, would become the next army chief. Khan wanted the head of the intelligence services, Lt. General Faiz Hameed, the man largely credited for delivering the 2018 election to Khan. But current army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, perhaps unsurprisingly, favored himself. An impasse resulted, and the battle ended as so many have: with the military victorious and the civilian leader deposed — officially in a vote of no-confidence in parliament, but in reality only because the military stopped propping Khan up.

More broadly, though, cracks in the façade had been evident for months, if not years. Khan’s record in government was worse than his handlers had expected. And opposition parties in parliament had been united in demanding Khan’s removal since irregularities in the 2018 election. The promotion battle was the proverbial last straw.

In the immediate aftermath of his removal, the erstwhile prime minister, still immensely popular with a large segment of the population, led masses of his followers into the streets. Since then, the military has been under fire, receiving criticism for its engineering of political outcomes, even from previously friendly quarters. Indeed, as a consequence of the army’s break with Khan, many “activists” — encouraged and previously organized by intelligence services to harass opponents of both Khan’s Justice Party (PTI) and the army in the harshest possible terms — have now turned their rhetorical guns on the military, especially on social media. For an institution unused to anything other than hagiography, it has been humbling.

The Economic Crisis

Khan, meanwhile, led his party to a dominating performance in Punjab’s by-elections on July 17, signaling that he would not go quietly into the good night. The simplest explanation for the PTI’s success was strong anti-incumbency sentiment. With inflation above 20 percent, the public is loath to reward parties in power with a mandate.

Indeed, if the transition from Khan’s PTI to new prime minister Shehbaz Sharif’s PML-N coalition government were not challenging enough, Pakistan now finds itself in the midst of perhaps its most serious economic crisis in a quarter century.

As a proximate cause, this is a crisis fundamentally about debt. Pakistan owes billions of dollars to creditors. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine meant that the dollar price of fuel, which makes up a quarter of Pakistan’s import bill, shot up. At the same time, the currency has lost 30 percent of its value since 2021, meaning that everything Pakistan imports, not to mention its debt, has suddenly gotten considerably more expensive. A vicious cycle of currency depreciation, increased debt, and decreased confidence that the debt can be repaid has been set in motion.

Many economists are seriously concerned that Pakistan may default. Whether it can avoid such an eventuality depends greatly on the extent and speed of IMF support, which in turn rests on how willing countries such as Saudi Arabia or China are to bail Islamabad out, whether in the form of debt forgiveness, restructuring, or plain old cash.

But even in the best case scenario, the “solution” of IMF, Saudi, or Chinese money only kicks the can down the road. Pakistan’s debt problem is not going away, nor is its reliance on bailouts from stronger or richer countries. Its elite, as well as the entrepreneurial middle classes, do not pay taxes. The primary path to wealth is dominating rent-seeking sectors of the economy, such as land or sugar. Successive governments have favored short-term, populist fixes, such as keeping the exchange rate artificially inflated (PML-N) or the price of fuel artificially deflated (PTI) to keep the country’s consumption-driven economy going. Suffice it to say, the bill for such measures has come due.

This much should now be clear: Waiting for a superpower to invade Afghanistan is not a sustainable strategy for economic development. Pakistan’s growth, and the well-being of its citizens, cannot continue to rest on the largesse of major powers and the contingencies of geopolitical alliances.

An Inflection Point?

Pakistan’s political and economic crises are connected. While the political upheaval and regime change have not directly caused the economic turmoil, they have certainly exacerbated it, showing investors and creditors that Pakistan is presently an unserious, irresponsible polity. At a time when the country needs all hands on deck, its political elite is caught in narrow power games, such as an ongoing political-judicial struggle over which party is in power in Punjab, the biggest province, and when, precisely, the next general elections will be held.

So what now? There are essentially two views on the question of whether this episode marks an inflection point.

The first is rooted in a been-there-done-that cynicism. In this more pessimistic view, history shows that the people will forgive and forget soon enough. After all, this is hardly the first time that Pakistan’s army has stumbled in the public’s eye. In our contemporary era, for instance, the military was widely derided in the days after Osama bin Laden’s killing by U.S. forces. But only months later, the army and its then chief, Raheel Shareef, waged an intense PR campaign to recover the institution’s image. Before long, things were back to normal.

More generally, the military’s level of entrenchment in spheres as widely flung as the political economy of land and business, media censorship and internet surveillance, and backroom electoral politics means that even huge crises can, at most, only chip away at its dominance. The military isn’t going anywhere. It has weathered worse crises before.

The second, more optimistic view holds that today the army is on the firing line as it has never been before. Historically, the urban upper and middle classes have cheered on the military’s outsized role in politics, and tended to be quite receptive to its messaging decrying corrupt politicians and internal and external security threats, both real and perceived.

But it is precisely these classes that are now, for the first time, bearing the brunt of army interference. For them, it was one thing for the military to cut the dynastic Bhuttos and Sharifs down to size, but quite another to do so to their dear leader. These supporters, to paraphrase the popular quip, never thought that the leopard would eat their faces: Imran Khan was simply too incorruptible, too upstanding, too much of a patriot to be subject to such high-handed treatment.

But he was, and now his followers are fired up. For the first time, traditionally strong supporters of the army are now attacking it. Even recently retired military members, many of whom are big fans of Khan, have taken to criticizing army leadership in strident tones on social media.

In this optimistic view, space for the military has been gradually shrinking over the last forty years. Full-blown coups are now unimaginable to many Pakistanis. Hybrid regimes, if the last half decade is any indication, do not work. And across the political spectrum, there is greater assertiveness against the military’s role in politics — even if much of it is self-interested rather than principled opposition.

Only time will tell which of these two perspectives is correct. This author favors the first, more pessimistic one. Regardless, on one item there can be no debate: The amateur-hour shenanigans that characterize Pakistan’s political scene do nothing to solve the country’s problems or realize its promise.

Pakistan remains one of the epicenters of the climate crisis, with unforgiving heatwaves, melting glaciers, drying rivers, and some of the dirtiest air on the planet. This summer’s unprecedented rainfall and flooding in Balochistan, the country’s poorest province, as well as the country at large has thrown into stark relief the scale of Pakistan’s challenges. Politically, weak institutions and the military’s continued dominance and crowding out of “normal” politics, alongside the fusion of violent Islamism, street politics, and new media, severely threaten the country. On the security front, Pakistan faces deep and serious dangers from within (terrorism and insurgency from Islamists and Baloch separatists) and without (an increasingly assertive New Delhi). It remains a desperately poor country whose government fails to deliver basic services such as drinking water and electricity to a great many of its citizens. From once being the richest country in the region on a per capita basis, Pakistan now lags behind India and Bangladesh. Almost half of Pakistan’s population is younger than 25. What does the future hold for them?

The game of musical chairs — from the army, to the army’s opponents, to the army’s favored sons, and so on — that typifies Pakistan’s political development does not serve the interests of the people or the country. Pakistan’s military guardians would do well to focus on their day job and leave the politics to the politicians. Such a transition would not magically transform all of Pakistan’s structural problems; the economic malaise, for instance, is deeply intertwined with but not reducible to the military’s dominance of politics. But it would be the biggest and most serious step toward the structural reform that the country needs — and that its people deserve.

Ahsan I. Butt is associate professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He is the author of the book Secession and Security: Explaining State Strategy Against Separatists (2017) and has written for numerous journals and newspapers.


Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy

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