Analytical Brief 17, January 2022

The political crisis in Pakistan, having first become apparent in October 2021 during the intra-elite conflict over the appointment of the head of the Directorate General for Inter-Services Intelligence (Inter-Service Intelligence or ISI), is far from over. There is still a near-open conflict of interests between Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan's army commander, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. This conflict will largely determine the evolution of the political situation in Pakistan. This evolution has several possible scenarios.

Army vs. Inter-Service Intelligence

Although the army remains the most important player in Pakistani politics, the illegal (from the perspective of some high-ranking officers of the Pakistani army) extension of Qamar Bajwa's term as Commander-in-Chief until November 2022 has led to a de facto split in the military leadership. Bajwa is by far the most influential man in Pakistani politics, but he no longer has the support of some of the army’s more influential commanding officers, who are divided today into several factions.

This situation was used in October 2021 by the outgoing director of the ISI, General Faiz Hamid, who has a great deal of influence on Prime Minister Imran Khan and, according to some observers, on his wife Bushra Bibi Khan, who in turn has a lot of influence over the prime minister and is considered his spiritual advisor.1 General Faiz and Bushra Bibi Khan convinced Imran Khan to refuse General Bajwa's appointment of General Nadeem Anjum as director of the ISI. This provoked not only an almost open confrontation between Imran Khan and Bajwa in October, but also exacerbated the political crisis in the country's top administrative and political leadership.

The near-open conflict between the army and the ISI has no precedents in the past. The ISI chief, General Faiz Hamid, acted so blatantly because he felt not only his strength, but also the weakness of General Bajwa, who does not enjoy the support of the army’s top tier of generals and, moreover, has some serious enemies in their ranks.

The appointment of General Nadeem to run the ISI after three weeks of crisis does not mean that the crisis is over.2 According to some experts in Islamabad, General Bajwa has ambitions to become a new leader of Pakistan; he will certainly remember this episode, and seek new political arrangements to secure his position and advance his political agenda. According to one version, General Bajwa is interested in the post of president of the country, and according to another — the post of head of an interim government that could be formed in Pakistan in the event of Imran Khan’s early resignation.

Experts in Islamabad believe that General Bajwa does not want to see General Faiz Hamid succeeding him as Pakistan's army Commander-in-Chief. This is due not only to his unwillingness to create a second precedent, when the country's army would be controlled by "an ISI man" (the first precedent was set by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani), but also because of his personal conflict with General Faiz, who was able to tactically outplay General Bajwa in his influence over Imran Khan and his wife.

Bajwa Prospespects

General Bajwa now needs to build a strong political coalition to realize his presidential or prime ministerial ambitions. Today there are two likely options for such alliances.

The first option is the reanimation of Bajwa's alliance with Imran Khan and a repeat of the 2018 electoral combination that resulted in Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party winning the elections. This was then largely due to General Faiz Hameed, at the time head of the ISI Counter-Intelligence, engaging in political rigging and manipulation that benefitted Imran Khan. General Hameed acted on behalf of General Bajwa. Perhaps now Bajwa and Imran Khan will agree again, in anticipation of approaching parliamentary elections, only the role of General Faiz will be assumed by another high-ranking officer, such as Nadeem. Or Faiz himself will join such an alliance - it seems that the window for negotiations with Bajwa is not completely closed for him, especially if Bajwa does not interfere with Faiz's plans to replace him as Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistani army.

The second option is for Bajwa to form a coalition with Bilawal Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which represents the interests of the Zardari-Bhutto clan. In this case, Imran Khan's project would be dropped and replaced by an alliance of the Bajwa political clan with the political masters of Sindh, the third-largest province of Pakistan where the PPP and the Bhutto clan can secure a stable majority.

The second option (Bajwa plus the Zardari Bhutto clan) is already being discussed in General Bajwa's inner circle, but a final decision has not yet been made - as with the Imran Khan project and his party. The likelihood of a political alliance between Bajwa's group and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party looks unlikely for now because of public criticism of the Pakistani army leadership by members of the PML-N leader's family.

It is noteworthy that during the acute phase of the October crisis, all the major political parties in the country did not use the occasion to publicly criticize the government or the army. One explanation suggests that General Bajwa and his representatives held informal consultations with leading party leaders and made promises to them about a future break with Imran Khan. On the condition that Imran Khan leaves the political scene (perhaps even prematurely), party leaders may have agreed not to rock the boat and use the crisis situation to launch political attacks on an already weak government. Now it is an open question whether General Bajwa will keep these promises.

Imran Khan

According to our sources in Islamabad, the project Imran Khan 2.0, despite the obvious failures of the current prime minister's policies, still retains its appeal for the Pakistani army. Pakistanis traditionally give their electoral votes not to the most professional politician, but to the one they like emotionally - outwardly attractive, eloquent, able to sell himself to the crowd, to present his image effectively. This is a very important factor in Pakistan's electoral and political process, and it is still working for Imran Khan. In addition, opinion polls show that Imran Khan's party is still leading in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a Pashtun-populated province (previously known as the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).3 The Bajwa supporters have established the BAP (Balochistan Awami Party) in neighboring Balochistan, which became quite popular. One can expect that through these two projects, the Bajwists will be able to hold successfully the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2023. And for such a success, it will be necessary to restore the alliance between General Bajwa and Imran Khan.

Islamism, Nationalism and the Unity of Pakistan

The success of the Taliban project in neighboring Afghanistan modifies the political landscape of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces. The popularity of Islamist political parties and organizations is on the rise. This is likely to affect not only the results of national parliamentary elections (scheduled for 2023), but also the elections to local provincial parliaments. Some experts believe that the army wants to give these provinces to Islamists and will not stand in the way of Jamaat-e-Islami (Islamic Party of Pakistan), led by Siraj ul Haq, and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islami, led by Fazal ur Rehman, to compete for Pashtun and Baloch voters.

Staking on the Islamists, the army wants to block the Pashtun and Baloch parties, promoting nationalist and separatist ideas. Threats to the integrity of Pakistan are not just continuing, but are becoming increasingly dangerous. The resilience of Pakistan's state and political construct should not be exaggerated. The likelihood of Pakistan's disintegration under certain conditions is acknowledged by Pakistani government analysts. That is why so much attention is given to countering nationalist Pashtun and Baloch projects.

The country's long-lasting socio-economic crisis, particularly exacerbated in the past two years, has revealed Pakistan's vulnerability to external economic sanctions. Today, relatively serious economic sanctions can make Pakistan's state and political system crumble. Moreover, economic sanctions do not have to involve Western powers - if sanctions were imposed by only India, it alone could provoke an uncontrollable process of Pakistan’s disintegration.

Some observers in Peshawar and Islamabad believe that the project of an independent Pashtunistan does not seem fantastic at all and can take shape in the foreseeable future. At the same time, the sources believe that the probable scenarios of Pakistan's disintegration will begin not in Pashtunistan or Baluchistan, but in Punjab. Penjab today is facing “the problem of Saraikistan” — a new Pakistani province, comprising the areas which have a majority of Saraiki speakers in the southern and southwestern parts of Punjab province and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.4

Saraiki distinct ethnic awareness is a fairly recent phenomenon and started in the 1960s. The nominal decision to create Saraikistan was made back in 2012 by the provincial Punjabi and national parliaments, but its practical implementation is being hindered by the military, who not without reason believe that the appearance of Saraikistan will destroy Punjab, the "heart" of Pakistan. Saraikistan will occupy more than 50% of the Punjab territory and comprise over 30% of its population (Saraikis ethnically belong to the Pushtun and Baluchis).

In November 2021, Saraikistan nationalists organized a five-day long Seraiki province awareness campaign during which they accused the government of reneging on its promises and demanded the creation of Saraikistan province. In 2022, the 10th Anniversary of the decision to establish the province of Saraikistan can trigger a mass political and media campaign in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Sindh and South Punjab, demanding practical implementation of the project. Such a campaign would become an additional factor of instability and unrest.


  1. Bushra Bibi Khan proclaims herself to be a ‘mystic’ and is known in Pakistan as a ‘spiritual healer’.
  2. General Nadeem was officially inducted on November 20, 2021.General Nadeem was officially inducted on November 20, 2021.
  3. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has the third largest provincial economy in Pakistan and borders Afghanistan and Kashmir.
  4. Pakistan is a multi-ethnic state, but the Punjabis constitute the majority. There are also Pashtuns, Sindhis, Muhajirs, Baluch, Saraiki, Kashmiris, Baltis, various other Dardic groups, Hindkowans, and a number of smaller ethnicities like the Brusho people in the north. However, the ruling elites tend to be Punjabi and Muhajir with smaller, but substantial numbers of co-opted Pashtuns and Sindhis. The Punjabi-Muhajar elites are considered to underestimate and disregard other ethno-linguistic groups, while other ethnicities like Saraiki, Sindhi, Baloch and Pashtuns consider the Punjabis as being ‘outsiders’, who occupied their native provinces.