In the West, the existence of a “deep state” remains a contentious issue. Many activists and political outcasts have referred to it, even targeted it, while mainstream media outlets have rushed to condemn the concept as a conspiracy theory.
Even so, many in Britain, for example, still refer to the “Establishment”. And the late US President John F. Kennedy famously referred to a “system that has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.” Former US President Donald Trump more recently exclaimed that, “Either the deep state destroys America or we destroy the deep state.” Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson alluded to the “deep state” plotting to take the UK back into the European Union, while in March prominent businessman and former director of the British Chambers of Commerce, John Longworth, called Whitehall “self-serving and a state within a state”.
It is, of course, absurd to believe that the business of government is limited to appointments made during the few years of a prime minister’s or president’s term in office. Governments and ministers come and go, so there has to be an uninterrupted, unelected and largely unknown set of officials who manage affairs before, in between and beyond the temporary political administrations. In Britain, it is called the civil service, which hardly sounds like a secret shadow government.
It is also equally absurd to imagine that the civil service – particularly its senior figures – and unelected officials do not work in coordination with the intelligence community and defence sector at some level in a process about which the general public knows little or nothing. The question is not do deep states exist, therefore, but how far their influence extends and to what ends they operate.
In Pakistan, the deep state basically operates in full view. The Establishment made up of the country’s armed forces, the intelligence community led by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and pro-military government officials and civilians is an everyday reality for Pakistanis at home and abroad. The military Establishment is spoken of openly as if it is just another function of government, and many Pakistanis actually respect it despite the usual discontent about periods of martial law and interference in politics. The military and the ISI have been said to be the only bodies really keeping the country intact in the face of political instability, creeping separatism and foreign conspiracies.
In practice, the Pakistani Establishment has been the kingmaker and power-broker. It is essential for political figures and election candidates to gain the trust and support of the military. This is similar to the way that, increasingly — and bizarrely, given that it involves an alien state — political candidates in the West feel the need to appease influential pro-Israel lobby groups and pledge their support for Zionism. In Pakistan, candidates need to gain the Establishment’s backing and steer clear of any criticism of it.
One man that the Pakistani Establishment backed and helped bring to power, however, eventually acted against the unwritten rules and defied the military leadership while in office and afterwards. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan was pushed out of office last year; the military favoured his opponents. Since then, political and social turmoil has spread across Pakistan amid Khan’s attempts to return to power. The corruption case against the former premier and the authorities’ ongoing efforts to arrest and detain him have only added to the tensions. An attempt by the police to enter his home in Lahore by force — officers actually used heavy machinery such as bulldozers – has led to clashes with his supporters, resulting in some deaths on both sides.
Khan has resorted to hiring armed guards, a move which has fuelled the authorities’ accusations that he employs militants and terrorist elements from neighbouring Afghanistan.
Such events, claims and counter-claims, leading to an ever-growing opposition to the Establishment by Khan’s many supporters, have presented what is seen as the greatest threat to its power and reputation in Pakistani history.
There are many former and even current Khan supporters who are critical of his recklessness and apparent willingness to let the opposition spill over onto the streets in violence. They acknowledge that he has a responsibility to help lower tensions. Nevertheless, a growing number of people in Pakistan and the Pakistani diaspora now talk disparagingly about the military and intelligence Establishment’s outsized role in Pakistani politics. It has, they admit, simply gone too far.
This criticism is not just reputational. It has seen a number of pro-Establishment and military figures lend their support to Khan, including retired military officers, junior personnel and even, apparently, the former head of the ISI, Zaheerul Islam.
Although this will certainly be seen as a threat to the Pakistani military Establishment, it hardly means the end of the nation’s deep state and its influence. It still commands unprecedented power within most sectors in the country and its governance; has forceful sway over much of the media; and benefits from the willingness of the two main dynastic parties — the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) — to toe the Establishment line.
Furthermore, it has largely protected itself from foreign interference or distrust, with traditional allies in both the West and the Gulf, for example, maintaining excellent ties with the Pakistani military and relations with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government. While Khan had mostly strained relations with the West and accused the Americans of being behind his ousting, the military has sought to rebuild Pakistan’s ties with Washington.
Moreover, despite earlier refusals by the likes of Saudi Arabia when approached to give Islamabad a loan to ease its economic crisis, the Kingdom and its Gulf neighbours are more comfortable with Pakistan’s current government and, of course, the military Establishment keeping it in office, than they ever were with Khan at the helm. That has been proven by some progress on the economic front.
There is now growing talk about the possibility of Khan returning to power. Such a scenario will depend entirely on if either the former premier or the Establishment is willing to step back from the precipice. If the military Establishment pulls back first, it could look like a defeat or a strategic manoeuvre to reassure the country and international community that it respects Pakistan’s democratic status. For Khan, however, it is more of a risk: if he tones down his rhetoric and calls on his supporters to stand down, the establishment and authorities could either ease some of the political and legal pressure on him, or double down and use the opportunity to put him behind bars. The latter would result in nationwide protests and violence, and cast doubt on the validity of Pakistani democracy.
Whatever happens, Imran Khan and his widespread support are pushing Pakistan’s military Establishment into a corner. It may have acted wisely in not carrying out an open coup and establishing martial law, as has happened before, but its role in the ousting of Khan and the ongoing efforts to arrest him are still clear for all to see.
While this is not the end for Pakistan’s deep state Establishment, in Khan it is dealing with a different kind of opponent, more so than in previous decades. It must tread very carefully and more strategically than ever in the coming months and possibly years if it wishes to survive in its present form. Survive, of course, is what deep states do.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.