Taking on Pakistan’s military was always going to be an uphill fight. Imran Khan, the former prime minister and leader of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, was driven toward direct confrontation when, in April 2022, his army patrons turned their backs on him, allowing his government to fall. Theirs was never likely to be a comfortable marriage. Four years earlier, the military establishment, in its determination to get rid of a scandalized, overreaching Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) regime, was willing to back a man whom it knew to be an egocentric “loose cannon.” In turn, to fulfill his burning ambition to form a government, Khan had acceded to military-circumscribed civilian rule. But upon Khan assuming office, relations between his PTI cabinet and the Army’s leadership became increasingly strained over what the generals considered to be the new government’s incompetence, Khan’s overly ambitious foreign policies, and his meddling in the military establishment’s promotional system. Sensing no alternatives, the generals felt compelled to restore ties with Khan’s political adversaries, now allied as a 13-party coalition — the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) — headed by the PML-N, which the military had ousted in 2017.
A spurned Khan’s aggressive campaign
Bitter over the military dumping him, Khan immediately embarked on a populist campaign to recapture power by forcing early elections. He made impressive gains in rallying Pakistanis to his cause, drawing his most fervent support from educated, middle-class urbanites. With his rhetorical skills, Khan came easily to dominate the political stage, with interim Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and PML-N Senior Vice President Maryam Sharif, the brother and daughter of disqualified former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, proving no match. Khan tapped into the grievances harbored by wide segments of the public, most notably angered by the country’s spiraling inflation and reduced subsidies. Additionally, Khan found that he could often count on favorable rulings by the courts and especially Supreme Court Chief Justice Umar Bandial. In turn, to shield itself from the activist jurists, the Sharif dynasty-led government has relied on a cooperative National Assembly.
Over this period, the Armed Forces sought to convey the impression of neutrality and readiness to act as an honest broker. While Khan and his PTI loyalists tiptoed around criticizing the military as an institution, they poorly disguised their strong animosity toward then-Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, holding him directly responsible for the party’s parliamentary defeat the previous April and accusing him of being a continuing source of its political difficulties. When Bajwa’s term as chief expired in November 2022, to the party’s great disappointment he was replaced by Gen. Asim Munir, who was thought to have a personal history of antipathy toward Khan. In the PDM government’s efforts to put off early elections, the military conveniently cited its security concerns. Yet it could not ignore Khan’s surging popularity and the greater difficulty it would face were it to try to manipulate the outcome of the next election, due to be held by October 2023. The military seemed ready to back a negotiated political solution in which Khan and his party might regain power but opposition parties would be placed in a strong position to limit his authority. Preliminary discussions between Khan and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government made no headway, however, and attempts to revive them failed.
Assassination plot and Khan’s arrest
The depth of feeling between the military establishment and Khan came glaringly out into the open with a November 2022 attempt on his life, which he blamed on a high-ranking official in Pakistan’s principal intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate. Even so, the military-civilian clash did not reach true crisis proportions until Khan’s May 2023 arrest, by government paramilitary forces, on one of a long list of pending criminal charges. Inflamed by the arrests, Khan’s sympathizers took to the streets nationwide on May 9 to demonstrate and riot. Mobs displaying PTI flags marched on Army cantonments, looting and burning, damaging such revered symbols as statues and inscriptions associated with the Armed Forces. The military’s surprising restraint in dealing with the mobs left many with the impression that in instances such as the over-running of Army headquarters in Rawalpindi, the defenders had either been instructed to stand down or had defied orders from their superiors. At the time, many of those in the PTI leadership envisioned the ruling coalition government as well as the military establishment capitulating to the demands of the protestors, thus clearing the path for Khan’s early reinstatement to office. Some dared to see this as a pivotal moment, when the military establishment would finally be pushed off its pedestal as a political force.
Confidence among Khan’s close associates that they were on a winning path was further bolstered by Chief Justice Bandial’s intervention to order Khan’s immediate release from arrest. Khan emerged from the court to a warm reception, exuding confidence. Buoyed by his belief that he held the unwavering loyalty of his followers as well as the backing of not only the judiciary but also substantial elements of the military, Khan was convinced that he could now compel the holding of immediate elections. And feeling certain of his popular standing with the masses — polls, he boasted, showed him backed by 70% of the nation — Khan and others in the party felt they had every reason to expect an impressive election victory. But then Khan made the error of turning his dispute with the military into a winner-take-all struggle.
Khan accused Army Chief Munir of personally ordering his arrest and of planning to assassinate him. With his charges, Khan may have hoped to encourage a coup by junior officers to remove Munir and other adversaries within the military. On April 30, warning of a conspiracy to “drive a wedge” between the Army’s leadership and the public, Munir instructed military personnel that their primary loyalty is to the Armed Forces in their assigned constitutional role. The events of May 9 provided Munir with an opportunity to close ranks, fortify unity within the Army, and rebuild the Armed Forces’ image as the most powerful institution in the country. Rather than reeling from the serious accusations against him, Munir, backed by his corps commanders, responded aggressively, detaining over 80 of the PTI’s top leaders along with hundreds of supporters. With PTI supporters charged with engaging in acts of sedition, May 9 has become a cudgel with which to break Khan and his party.
The Army strikes back
The military establishment has mounted a three-pronged attack. Khan has for some time painted himself as a victim of powerful forces both domestic and foreign determined to remove him from political life. The failed assassination plot naturally lent strong credibility to his narrative. But the events of May 9 created an opportunity for the establishment to turn the tables on the former prime minister. In a media blitz describing the day as a “dark chapter,” the military’s influential Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate has portrayed the country as the true victim of events. Khan and his followers were accused of inflicting immense damage on the country, of the kind that even its enemies had failed to achieve over the past 75 years. Denouncing them as anti-Pakistan terrorists, the military declared its intentions to prosecute in specialized military courts those individuals who planned and partook in the incidents of May 9.
The military establishment has also sought to undercut Khan’s appeal to Pakistani nationalism. The former prime minister has positioned himself as standing fast for freedom and democracy and has branded the current government a fascist regime. Khan has also presented himself as leading a jihad for Pakistan’s self-determination. The military has countered this narrative with its own proclamations of the Armed Forces’ constant selflessness and sacrifice in protecting the homeland and its values.
The military and the Sharif-led coalition now appear determined to dismantle the PTI as an organization and undermine its legitimacy as a democratic movement. The ruling PDM government has announced that it is considering a permanent ban on Khan’s political party for promoting extremism and violence. Whereas, the Army released a hard statement on June 7, vowing to tighten the “noose of law” around “planners and masterminds who mounted a hate-ripened and politically-driven rebellion against the state and state institutions.” As the military crackdown on the PTI intensifies, the party’s leading officials have been intimidated and threatened. Many have quit the PTI and denounced its actions on May 9 in the hope that by distancing themselves from Khan they can avoid trial. Political careerists among them are also looking to salvage a future in politics. It has long been an accepted wisdom that there can be no PTI without Khan’s leadership, but the developing situation offers a picture of an Imran Khan stripped of a party.
Khan remains determined, but prospects dimming
Despite all this, Khan is determined to continue fighting. He has intensified his rhetorical attacks, openly criticizing the military and the government for practicing “state terrorism” and denouncing it for imposing “unannounced martial law.” He has filed legal petitions to the Supreme Court and banks on the chief justice’s support. But Bandial may now be less inclined to appear partisan. Even should his court issue rulings in Khan’s favor, the government and military may very well ignore them. Playing his democracy card, Khan has meanwhile sought to gain Western support, most recently from the United States, which he only months ago accused of leading a broad conspiracy to oust him. The U.S. and other Western countries have thus far steered clear of involvement in Pakistan’s political crisis, and so too have China and the Gulf states.
The likelihood of Khan successfully extricating himself from the entwined battle with the military now appears to be nearly impossible. He has crossed too many red lines for the military establishment to give him slack. A late-stage effort offering an olive branch in the form of a fresh political dialogue was rejected outright by the government. Khan’s last line of defense has always been thought to be his strong popular following. But despite visible public anger at Khan’s treatment, a popular uprising on his behalf seems doubtful, with most of the movement’s leadership locked up and Khan’s avid middle-class supporters a group not inclined to shed blood in the streets. Although the military has suffered a significant reputational loss in recent years, it is still seen by most Pakistanis as the country’s most reliable institution. Few in Pakistan can imagine the country without a powerful military as a bulwark against its enemies, foreign and domestic.
Looking at the next few months, the military, which for 15 years has preferred to avoid direct responsibility for Pakistan’s governance and ownership of its many serious domestic challenges, is likely to continue to pull strings from behind the scenes. The PDM government can be expected to finish out its constitutional interim term of office. In the absence of seriously heightened security concerns, national and provincial elections are slated to occur in October, with most of the familiar cast of parties competing. The PTI seems likely to be soon outlawed and Khan put on ice through imprisonment. New political parties and alignments are already beginning to form. There may be an attempt to reconstitute the PTI without Khan, but without him at the helm it could be at best only a fringe party.
The establishment may choose to reestablish an uneasy working relationship with a coalition led by Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, and Pakistan’s politics may in many ways resemble much of what it was before Khan came to loom so large on the political scene. Still, it will take some time for Pakistan to get over its affair with Imran Khan. He might have created a political awareness within sectors of society that, if nurtured carefully, could eventually serve as the basis for building a more dedicated reformist movement. Khan may indeed have been on a mission to clean up politics and promote civilian rule; but for all his popularity and charisma, his bad decisions and character defects made him a flawed leader.
The enduring consequences of this political crisis
For the present, Pakistan remains in a political crisis that has taken a heavy toll on the country’s economy and social cohesion. It has also almost certainly contributed to a serious loss of faith in an already eroded democracy. Pakistan may emerge from the current political turmoil having avoided far greater civil strife but at the price of restoring most of what accounts for its weak constitutional institutions and irresponsible political elite behavior. As throughout Pakistan’s past, the military bears heavy responsibility for what has gone wrong with the country’s politics but also deserves recognition for often saving Pakistan from itself.
Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum is the director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies Program at the Middle East Institute.
Naad-e-Ali Sulehria has over five years of involvement working with international organizations and think tanks in different capacities as a political researcher, policy advisor, peace strategist, and human rights practitioner. He currently serves as a Research Assistant to Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum.
Photo by FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP via Getty Images
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