The growing tussle between Imran Khan and the military establishment
Pakistan’s powerful military establishment is getting (in) directly embroiled into the country’s domestic politics. Former prime minister Imran Khan has not stopped veiled attacks against the army establishment, primarily the Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, for not supporting his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government during the opposition-led vote of ‘no-confidence’ motion last month. In his recent social media interactions and public speeches, Khan continued to put allegations on the Army’s role in his government’s ousting from power. In a podcast, Imran Khan claimed that he became aware of the opposition’s ‘conspiracy’ to overthrow the PTI-led government in July, last year.
Therefore, he did not want to change the former director-general of the Inter- Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt Gen Faiz Hameed “until the winter was over.” Khan further added that since there were threats of “civil war in Afghanistan,” after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August last year, he wanted to continue with the then ISI chief during “difficult times.”
These revelations have made it clear that Pakistan Army’s top leadership was not united to decide the fate of the PTI government and was possibly divided into two camps – those in favour of Imran Khan, including Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, and those against like Gen Bajwa. Unsurprisingly, Gen Bajwa’s orders were followed, and new ISI Chief was announced in October, last year, despite Imran Khan’s disapproval. Moreover, Gen Bajwa stayed “neutral” during the ‘no-confidence’ motion episode last month and quietly allowed the opposition alliance to oust the PTI government “constitutionally.”
Imran Khan and his party leaders have criticised the military establishment’s surprising decision to remain “neutral” and not intervene in the matter, even though the PTI government came to power
in 2018 with the army’s help. Even the Ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Pakistan, Sirajul Haq confirmed that the military establishment felt “embarrassed after the failure of the PTI project and it again brought back the former ruling parties into power.”
For the establishment, dumping Imran Khan in a straightforward/forced manner could have impacted their domestic and international image. As a result, a long-drawn political option (no-trust vote) was chosen to overthrow the PTI-led ‘hybrid regime’ from power. Perhaps, the army was also aware of Imran Khan’s popularity as a civilian leader and did not want to get involved openly in the process of removing him from power. This tactic also allowed the military to keep its image ‘clean’ despite public resentment and put the onus of Khan’s removal on the opposition parties. Now, after a month of Khan’s removal, there are growing chances of street violence and clashes between the supporters of PTI and the Shehbaz Sharif-led opposition alliance.
Imran Khan is baying for the blood of the 11 opposition parties and their key leaders who were involved in expelling him from power through a no-trust motion. He is regularly attending public rallies and giving mainstream and social media interviews to garner public support to pressure the Shehbaz Sharif-led government for early National Assembly elections in Pakistan – his best bet to come back to power. So far, there are no signs of fresh polls in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Imran Khan has announced a ‘long march’ to Islamabad later this month against the ruling coalition and issued a fresh calendar of public rallies in different parts of the country to mobilize the crowd for the big rally. This may lead to chaos on the streets of Islamabad, jeopardising the law-and-order situation of Pakistan’s capital, forcing the military establishment to intervene.
Khan’s strategy of dragging Pakistan’s Armed Forces into the ongoing political discourse in the country may prove costly to him. At a public rally in Abbottabad on May 8, Imran Khan said “only animals were neutral” who did not take a side when he was ousted from power in a no-trust move last month, in remarks apparently aimed at the military leadership of Pakistan. These remarks Pakistan Army’s Inter-Service Public Relations to issue statement condemning what was said against military establishment.
The statement said that the Pakistan Armed Forces condemned the spread of “unsubstantiated, defamatory, and provocative statements and remarks” against them and termed the practice “extremely damaging.” Prime Minister Sharif has also decided to take a legal action against Imran Khan for his “anti-state” speech. It is an opportune moment for Sharif to impress the military establishment and seek their support to handle the ongoing political crisis.
Several analysts from Pakistan have claimed that this is the first instance in Pakistan’s history when a civilian leader is so brazenly targeting the country’s powerful military establishment and forcing it to pick sides. Even PTI supporters have used social media to target the army, especially Gen Bajwa, for doing nothing to save Imran Khan’s government, whereas, other PTI leaders are regularly tagging ISPR in their propaganda tweets against the ruling government and questioning the army’s neutrality. This is unprecedented in Pakistan’s context, where the military establishment has unquestionable powers over the civilian authorities. Lastly, as Imran Khan may not shy away from targeting the military establishment for the ongoing political crisis, in a possible (failed) attempt to prove his political worth to Rawalpindi.