Judicial, military roles vital
PAKISTAN’S eruption into new political crisis this week elevates the risks in South Asia and beyond of instability in a nuclear-armed state that is also the world’s fifth most populous. Arrest of Imran Khan triggered a confrontation between his many supporters and the establishment which many Pakistanis say precipitated Imran’s detention. This still is unfolding crisis, a first useful step may be to carefully press Pakistani leaders to avoid any unlawful repression or military intervention. Backers of Imran rally in April 2022 against his ouster. As Imran doesn’t seem to regain power, his arrest triggered violent protests directed largely by Imran Khan himself. Imran Khan was arrested against charges of corruption. Government has sufficient evidence of his involvement in corruption. It is a matter of corruption of 190 million pounds. The case alleges that Imran Khan and his wife received land worth millions of dollars for a ghost university as a bribe from a very well known real estate tycoon of Pakistan.
The arrest caused immediate political upheaval and terrorism in Pakistan. Imran Khan and PTI supporters instantly assumed that the military, which has long wielded decisive influence in Pakistani politics, ordered Khan’s arrest. Protests broke out across the country and started targeting military installations. Miscreants of Imran gathered outside GHQ, broke into the main entrance and badly damaged the military’s emblem. PTI miscreants broke into the Corps Commander House Lahore, ransacking and setting it on fire. Other incidents of violence across the country caused casualties. In response, the military was called in to aid police in Islamabad, Punjab and KP. The Supreme Court ordered Iman’s immediate release to a court-controlled guesthouse, declaring the arrest illegal for having taken place on the premises of a courthouse. His arrest came after months of a major political tussle between Imran and the military establishment. Since his removal from office in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April 2022, Imran has campaigned against the military and coalition government, accusing both of colluding with the US to his ouster. His miscreants responded with sustained large-scale protests.
The PDM coalition has been defiant in the face of Imran’s pressure tactics. Imran Khan wants the military to step outside its constitutional role to help him. He alleges that the army has supported various political moves to contain him; there are dozens of registered cases against him. Imran has criticized the military establishment including the army chief, General Asim Munir, in rallies, interviews and on social media. Before his arrest, in what was his most significant escalation against the military, Imran accused a senior ISI officer plotting of his (IK) assassination. These public and direct accusations are novel developments in a country where the military establishment has long been viewed as the guarantor of stability. Imran’s dramatic release by the court generated euphoria and reduced public rage, yet has left uncertainty about what may happen to the country next. At the same time, PTI faces leadership vacuum, because it has no clear second-in-command to lead and most of the party leaders have been arrested on charges of instigating and directing the violence against the military and it’s sensitive installations. It remains to be seen whether the PTI can harness the tide of emotion to sustain a countrywide mobilization given the detention of much of its leadership and the prospect of Imran Khan getting arrested again.
The government and military tried to contain and deter further unrest by deploying the army across the country authorizing the use of force if necessary. In a strongly worded press release, the military criticized Imran and characterized the attacks by PTI’s actions as unpatriotic: an assault on Pakistani institutions, notably army properties that the country’s external enemies “could not accomplish for 75 years” of Pakistan’s existence. Against this backdrop of political upheaval, Pakistan is in a severe economic crisis due to dwindling foreign exchange reserves and a high external debt burden, putting the country on the brink of default. There is a heightened risk of terrorist violence in the country. Pakistani Taliban Movement has increased its insurgency within Pakistan from what is now its safe haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Supreme Court’s order to release Imran adds to tension between the army and the court. The court’s intervention may not shield Imran Khan in future legal proceedings as judges are sensitive to cues from the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice. That could frustrate military and push to consider emergency measures, perhaps even direct intervention.
Imran Khan’s future prospects, the government and the military’s ability to counter the PTI also depend, in great measure, on the military establishment’s cohesion. Pakistan’s military establishment, generally composed of senior officers in the army and intelligence services, has shown no overt signs of fracture, but the past year has included signs of its cohesion being under pressure. Amid the widespread terrorist attacks and judicial intervention, senior military leadership may be under pressure to de-escalate current tension and take an off-ramp from the crackdown against the PTI. The sense of embarrassment and breach of honour due to PTI miscreants’ attacks against military installations could create a “rally around the flag” effect and Imran’s support within the military’s elite networks may begin to diminish. The military’s cohesion remains important to watch. An important factor will be the scale of violence. The government, in coordination with the military, has launched a major crackdown against the PTI for inciting and directing violence. Imran’s release immediately ended terrorist attacks and his rearrest could revive terrorist attacks again.
—The writer is editor, book ambassador political analyst and author of several books based in Islamabad.
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