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There’s Trouble Inside Pakistan’s Military

For decades, Pakistan’s military has been the country’s most vital institution. Although it frequently intervened to oust elected governments, many Pakistanis saw this as salvation from the country’s blundering politicians. The army, it was thought, was the only force capable of holding the country together.

The question now is whether the generals can keep themselves together.

The military has suffered a catastrophic loss of prestige after the populist former prime minister Imran Khan directly challenged its influence. In response, Mr. Khan was ousted, jailed and his party — despite winning the most parliamentary seats in a divisive February election — was shut out of a new civilian government that took power this month with the blessing of the military leadership. The country remains deeply polarized.

But an even greater concern for Gen. Syed Asim Munir, the army chief, is that the polarization extends into the military itself. It is common knowledge within Pakistani and political circles that significant portions of the military leadership, powerful military families and rank-and-file officers are sympathetic to Mr. Khan’s right-wing, anti-American vision for the country, which included aligning Pakistan more closely with China and Russia. Whether this internal rift can be healed will ultimately decide the direction and stability of this nuclear-armed and fifth most populated country.

These divisions could hardly come at a worse time for Pakistan. The economy is near collapse and General Munir is working to repair relations with Washington that were badly frayed by Mr. Khan’s politics. Pakistan is beset by political and security challenges on all sides, including archrival India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, as well as Taliban-held Afghanistan and Iran. Iranian forces launched airstrikes on targets in Pakistan in January, prompting Pakistani counter-strikes. This month, Pakistani military posts were hit by separate militant attacks in the country’s south and along the border with Afghanistan.

The military, of course, bears much of the blame for the country’s predicament. After the decade-long military regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf ended in 2008, Pakistan returned to a fragile democracy. But the army leadership began to fear that the two dominant political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan People’s Party, were seeking to rein in military influence.

The generals faced other pressures, too. The United States imposed conditions on financial aid to Pakistan’s military in 2009 and killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in 2011. Later that year, 28 Pakistanis were killed in an accidental clash between NATO and Pakistani forces along the border with Afghanistan. A popular narrative gained ground, partly fanned by the army itself, that portrayed the United States as conspiring to undermine the nation’s sovereignty.

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