Military vs. Democracy in Pakistan: Can Imran bell the Army?


Imran Khan seems to have already pushed the ‘militablishment’ to the corner and forced it to tread carefully. However, he does not seem inclined to rein in the military; he is only sulking over the former army chief’s alleged inaction to save him from losing his prime ministership… As the country braces itself for elections and a possible sweeping electoral victory for Imran Khan, it is useful to ask: Will Imran go the whole hog and try to unseat the top army leadership and get away with it? Will they strike a fresh bargain with each other and relapse to the familiar hybrid democratic model?

Pakistan's struggle towards establishing a stable democracy in the country has been a never-ending saga since its creation in 1947. Despite adopting the Westminster model of constitutional and parliamentary democracy, the country has had a difficult experience with democracy. The military has ruled the roost and granted only a few interludes of democratic rule. It is often said that ‘while states have armies, in Pakistan the army has a state’, which it uses to perpetuate its hold on power. While the country has various institutions in place, be it executive, judiciary and legislature, they are all controlled by the mighty army of Pakistan.

The politicians have made the task of the army easier by demonstrating their avarice for power and pelf, and because of their misgovernance and misrule, the people have deemed it better to endorse military takeovers in critical phases of Pakistani history. The politicians have failed to work out a normative framework based on consensus, which would determine the course of democratic politics in the country. It looks like the political leadership of Pakistan has completely forgotten the democratic ideals espoused by its founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who, during a speech at the Kingsway Hall, London, on 13 December 1946, had insisted that “democracy is in the blood of Musalmans who look upon complete equality of manhood, Musalmans believe in fraternity, equality and liberty” 1. They have behaved irresponsibly and betrayed the trust reposed on them by the people again and again, making it easier for the military to sell its narrative to the people that they cannot rely on corrupt politicians ever.

Military Supremacy hinders Democracy

During its existence as an independent and sovereign state since 1947, Pakistan has seen nearly three decades of direct army rule, during which the army steadily increased its hold over the state institutions. Pakistan witnessed army’s interference in politics quite early during the first decade of its existence, with General Ayyub Khan, then Commander in Chief, orchestrating a coup d'état on 27 October 1958, to remove President Iskander Mirza, who had abolished Pakistan’s first constitution earlier that month 2. Since then, it has been heavily involved in the country’s politics barring a few years in the 1970s and has come to dominate the state’s all other institutions.

The military dictators have sabotaged and subverted political processes, and it is because of their suspicion and fear of democratic rule that they have not allowed the democratic process to take root in Pakistan, even if they have failed to deliver. This has inevitably led to episodic popular movements and chronic political instability, which has turned Pakistan into a breeding ground for extremism and terrorism, and promoted corruption at every level. Pakistani Army assumed a wider role during the reign of former dictator president General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s, who used the ruse of Islam to extract popular legitimacy and worked towards Islamization of the state institutions, including the army, by infiltrating a large number of Islamists into its ranks. During this period, the army restored and further strengthened its hold over various institutions, which had momentarily receded to an extent during the decade and a half of civilian rule after Ayub Khan’s departure and vivisection of Pakistan in 1971.3.

In the last 76 years, only twice has the army allowed the legislatures to complete their terms (2008-2013 & 2013-2018); however, it ensured during this period that no single government lasted the entire term. During 2008-13, there were two prime ministers (Yusaf Raza Gillani and Raja Pervaiz Ashraf), and similarly, during 2013-2018, there were also two prime ministers (Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi). The same story continued in 2022, when Imran Khan’s government fell, leading to yet another coalition government assuming power led by Shehbaz Sharif, while the legislature seems all set to last its term.

Hybrid System  

During the last about 15 years (since 2008), the military has ensured its control over the security and foreign policy of the country and brooked no interference in these two domains by the civilian political leadership. Many observers have called this a hybrid system, where the civilian elected leadership is allowed to carry out municipal functions, the core issues of security and foreign policy are handled by the army. This has changed the very character of ‘democracy’ in Pakistan and promoted a culture of impunity in Pakistan which has helped the army continue with its experiment of ‘controlled-democracy’ or hybrid rule.

It is surprising that despite several coups and maladministration by the military dictators, the people of Pakistan have tremendous faith in the military as an institution which can ensure that elected leaders behave responsibly. The army has also ironically retained considerable control over the country's governance establishment and engineered the political processes at will to its advantage.

Will the Army ever go back to the barracks?

In light of these happenings, sending the military back to the barracks, as they call it, is crucial for democratic values to take root in Pakistan. Will it ever happen? At the moment, the army’s experiment with Imran Khan seems to have gone utterly wrong. The militablishment has been subjected to Imran Khan’s incessant public tirade against their role in Pakistani politics (perceived role in his ouster from office). The Army has also been subjected to public scrutiny to the extent that ISIS chief, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum, was forced to hold a press conference in the aftermath of the killing of Journalist Arshad Sharif in Kenya to counter Khan’s confrontational rhetoric that appears to have dented the holier-than-thou image of the military. While Lt. Gen. Anjum claimed that “he had appeared for his institution and the officers who were sacrificing their lives” and that it was necessary to differentiate between “facts, fiction and opinion”, the very fact that one of the most important officials of the army felt compelled to meet the press and clarify their stand revealed that its control and sway over the public is no longer absolute4.

It remains a fact that the military's political role has systematically undermined the democratic process over the years and hindered the country's development. The military’s interventions in the political process have weakened the legitimacy of democratic institutions by reducing the faith of the citizenry in the democratic system. With Imran Khan’s campaign against militablishment’s political role finding public reception, the former Chief of the Army Staff of Pakistan, Qamar Javed Bajwa, as he was preparing himself to retire in November 2022, was forced to concede that the military had been involved in the political engineering of the state for seven decades, which had become a source of ridicule to his force. “I believe the major reason has been the military’s interference in politics for the past 70 years, which is unconstitutional,” he insisted 5.

Military has grown Economic Muscle

It is often forgotten in Pakistan that its military has drained and diverted the country’s resources for sustaining its own economic complex at the cost of the sustainability of the state over the decades. The military's focus on maintaining its political power and influence has often come at the cost of economic development, which has limited its ability to attract investment and promote economic growth.

Pakistani armed forces led by the Army have run an extensive parallel internal economy and integrated it with the state’s economy to such an extent that it has made the armed forces a dominant economic player in the country. The Pakistani armed forces have raised diverse business undertakings, from small-scale ventures to corporate enterprises like Fauji Foundation (Army), Shaheen Foundation (Air Force) and Bahria Foundation (Navy). Interestingly, Pakistan Army further controls over a dozen premier public sector undertakings like Water & Power Development Authority (WAPDA), National Logistics Cell, Frontier Works Organization (FWO) and Special Communications Organization (SCO) 6. The UK-based The Spectator’s Elliot Wilson called the Pakistan Army a “ruthless business conglomerate” for its horizontal business interests. “Since independence in 1947, the army has steadily intertwined itself into Pakistan’s economy: so much so that it’s hard to tell where the military stops and any semblance of free-market capitalism begins” 7.

As Ayesha Siddiqa, in her book Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, argues, “the businesses are very diverse in nature, ranging from smaller-scale ventures such as bakeries, farms, schools and private security firms to corporate enterprises such as commercial banks, insurance companies, radio and television channels, fertiliser, cement and cereal manufacturing plants, and insurance businesses.” These ventures have turned the Pakistani armed forces into a kleptocratic oligarchy because of their consistent exploitation of the economic capital for the military’s exclusive advantage, which has been kept out of the reach of the state’s accountability mechanism, howsoever feeble 8.

Army on the Prowl: Poor Human Rights Record

The continued military involvement in both politics and the economy of the country has eroded civil liberties over the years, with its poor human rights record where the army’s excessive use of force has been very conspicuous. In the name of fighting extremism and insurgency, particularly across the tribal belts and in Balochistan, the army has resorted to indiscriminate use of force and cases of carpet bombing of tribal areas by helicopter gunships, mass arrests and forced disappearances which have attracted the attention of the human rights bodies the world over. The international watchdog, Human Rights Watch, in its 2022 Report, alleged, "Pakistan law enforcement agencies were responsible for numerous human rights violations, including detention without charge and extrajudicial killings” 9. In its 2021/22 Report, Amnesty International highlighted that the “restrictions on the right to freedom of expression intensified, with journalists and human rights defenders coming under increased scrutiny” 10.

Army abdicating its core Responsibility

To sustain its unconstitutional hold on power, the Army has maintained its apparent control over key institutions like accountability institutions, law enforcement agencies and even the judiciary. In many cases, retired and serving military officials are appointed in key positions in many of these institutions, and such pervasive embedding of service personnel has created opportunities for corruption, further weakening Pakistan’s democratic institutions and impeding economic development. This is reflected in its engineering of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to be used at will against the civilian leadership to keep them under check. An investigative report by independent FactFocus in November 2022 claimed that during General Qamar Bajwa’s term as the Chief of Army Staff Pakistan, his family fortunes had increased to over PKR 12.7 billion ($46 million). Bajwa could have afforded such acquisitions only because the accountability mechanism is in deep slumber 11.

Such examples prove that the Pakistani Armed Forces remain divested from their core responsibility of securing the country's sovereign borders and maintaining its internal security. These engagements have effectively weakened the military's ability to perform its core duties and left the country vulnerable to internal and external security threats. The security establishment has failed to contain the recent uptick in the violence perpetrated by extremist organisations like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). For instance, the undetected circumvention of the security check posts by a suicide bomber of the Jamat ul Ahrar faction of the TTP to attack the highly fortified mosque in the perimeter of Provincial Police Headquarters in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, on 30 January 2023, leaving over 100 dead, is a case in point 12.

Can Imran Bell the Cat?

It is imperative, therefore, to curtail the power of the Pakistan Army and limit its activities to the role constitutionally assigned to the armed forces. This can only happen if the politicians also play their cards right and work together rather than engage themselves in a suicidal struggle for power. Imran Khan seems to have already pushed the militablishment to the corner and forced it to tread carefully. However, he does not seem inclined to rein in the military; he is only sulking over the former army chief’s alleged inaction to save him from losing his prime ministership. During his almost four-year rule from 2018-1022, he was perfectly okay with the army dictating terms to him as long as it could ensure majority support for him in the legislature. He had struck a devil’s bargain with the army as much as the latter had engineered a political process to bring him to power as a submissive ally. Interestingly, there is a convergence of interest between the top leadership of the army being continuously targeted by Imran and the other mainstream political parties and their leaders, who want to cling onto power, as Imran’s political and electoral stock seems to rise by every passing day.

Imran, the rabble rouser that he is, has kept himself afloat by his defiant bluffs and his fans who blindly fall for all his lies and hero-worship him. He is in a desperate hurry to come back to power and his only ruse with the army today is that its top leadership no langer considers him worthy of its backing, even though he draws massive crowds in his rallies. Riding his popularity wave, Imran is being treated as an exception in Pakistan. He has so far extracted concessions from the judiciary and deterred the law enforcement agencies from arresting him for non-appearance in the court. He is like a messiah for a large number of Pakistanis who believe in his high decibel diatribe against leaders of other political parties and trust him with his promise of turning Pakistan into a new Medina, happily choosing to forget the fact that he had failed miserably during the four years he was in office as prime minister and indulged himself in questionable financial dealings as in the Toshakhana case. Much of the problem that the current government is facing today owes its origin to Imran’s misrule.

As the country braces itself for elections and a possible sweeping electoral victory for Imran Khan, it is useful to ask: Will Imran go the whole hog and try to unseat the top army leadership and get away with it? Will they strike a fresh bargain with each other and relapse to the familiar hybrid democratic model where Imran would be happy to retain his hold on power and grant the military control over Pakistan’s security and foreign policy? Will the army go for yet another coup if Imran does not oblige and seeks to bring the army under civilian control?

These are difficult questions to answer. However, the fact remains that Pakistan has reached a point where it has an opportunity to put the genie back in the bottle and give democracy yet another chance to succeed.

Dr. Mohmad Waseem Malla is a Research Fellow with the International Centre for Peace Studies (ICPS), New Delhi. He previously worked as Information Researcher with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies & Analyses, New Delhi. He has a doctorate in Middle Eastern Studies from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


1. “Quaid-e-Azam and Democracy”, February 1, 2011, URL:
2. Mazhar Aziz (2007), Military Control in Pakistan: The parallel state, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 55-56.
3. Ayesha Sidiqqa (2007), Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 84.
4. Dawn (2022), “Army, ISI in unprecedented presser question Arshad Sharif's exit from Pakistan, point to PTI's involvement”, October 27, 2022, URL:
5. VOA News (2022), “Outgoing Pakistan Army Chief Admits Involvement in Politics”, November 23, 2022, URL:
6. India Today (2023), “How corruption shadow looms over Pakistan military”, February 2, 2023, URL:
7. Eliot Wilson (2008), “The military millionaires who control Pakistan Inc”, January 19, 2008, URL:
8. Ayesha Sidiqqa (2007), Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 18.
9. Human Rights Watch (2022), “Pakistan Events of 2021”, URL:
10. Amnesty International (2022), “Amnesty International Report 2021/22: The state of the world’s human rights”, March 29, 2022, URL:
11. Ahmad Noorani (2022), “Army Chief Qamar Bajwa’s Family Became Billionaire Within the Last Six Years”, URL:
12. BBC (2023), “Pakistan mosque blast: Police targeted in suicide attack that kills 59”, January 30, 2023, URL: