Thursday, 9 February, 2023
HomeOpinionPakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf's biggest strength lies in its weakness. That's tempting for army

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s biggest strength lies in its weakness. That’s tempting for army

While the target and the stakes involved for the army are tempting enough, it would have to grapple with the backlash should anything happen to Imran.

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On 3 November 2022, when I first heard that Imran Khan had been shot, my instinctive conclusion was that the Pakistan Army must have orchestrated it. When it was quickly followed up by an assurance that he had suffered only minor bullet injuries to his leg, my instincts discounted the involvement of the Pakistan Army as the attempt did not reflect its professional competence in such matters. Later, as details trickled in, the attempt seemed amateurish. Accusations toward the Shehbaz Sharif government and the Inter-Services intelligence by Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, followed, while a few in the ruling coalition described the incident as staged.

In several videos of the incident, one can hear the sound of an automatic weapon firing, and some others show a man with a pistol being apprehended. Fake videos were, apparently, also in circulation. Importantly, the videos carried the message of the assassination attempt and served to inflame the emotions of Imran Khan supporters. And that’s how it turned out — soon, many videos depicting Imran’s supporters besieging army assets in various parts of Pakistan went viral. It included one where an individual is stomping atop a tank, conveying a sense of civilian hatred for the army. Pakistan presently enjoys, to some degree, a free media. Don’t be surprised if that changes. It became reasonably clear that the Imran Khan assassination bid reflected the ongoing confrontation between the Pakistan Army/Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the PTI.

It is ironic, though not unusual, for Pakistan that a political party hoisted to power by the army finds itself in the gunsights of the military. This time around, the power that Imran Khan wields has certain particular characteristics that may not be easily amenable to control by the army’s customary political machinations, including the use of terror proxies. Such power is derived from the supposition that having achieved victories in the October 2022 by-elections in Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the PTI would quite easily win the national electoral battle whenever it takes place. More importantly,  there is the prevailing sense that Imran Khan enjoys strong support among the middle and lower ranks of Pakistan’s armed forces. Notably, it is believed that he is also popular among the families of military personnel. He has, therefore, insisted that the elections be held at the earliest and the appointment of the army chief be done later.

Tussle for COAS

Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa is supposed to retire on 29 November. It was only on 11 November that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, after conferring with Nawaz in London, said that the next COAS would be determined ‘constitutionally’ and the senior-most officer would be the next COAS. Imran Khan immediately reacted and stated that the selection should be merit-based and Nawaz’s decision would be based on ‘who will save his misdeeds’. For Imran, who expects to win in the general election next year, the preference would be Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed, a known protégé. It is unlikely because the army would not allow it; Hameed is also lower than others in seniority. The tussle is about a supportive COAS.

Meanwhile, the army can be expected to leave no stone unturned to ensure that Imran Khan does not come back to power. Not that it is comfortable with the PML(N) — it has preferred to keep Nawaz in London. The army is, therefore, grappling with both the major political parties and the selection of COAS impacts all stakeholders. In addition, several options can be expected to be explored and exercised.


Also read: Why Imran Khan’s win won’t assure Pakistan of zero military interference


Where Imran’s popularity lies

Nawaz Sharif is now the only leader who could counter Imran Khan’s victory at the hustings. Due to medical reasons, he was released from Lahore Jail where he was serving a seven-year imprisonment after being found guilty in a corruption case. He is not yet able to return to Pakistan due to legal tangles that are practically controlled by the army. It would not be surprising if the legal hurdles are made to dissipate through machinations between the PML(N), the army, and the judiciary and if Nawaz returns, for the army has more or less influenced the judiciary. But this may not provide enough assurance for the Pakistan Army to ensure the prevention of a comeback by Imran.

Imran’s popularity is anchored in his being relatively the least corrupt politician than all others, including the leaders of the PML(N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the army. Cases against him are, therefore, viewed by his supporters as political vendetta and machinations that are being utilised to keep him away from power. The army and the Sharif government would thus still be wary of the results of the next elections. This gives rise to a possibility that Imran Khan has been loudly broadcasting ever since he announced his march to Rawalpindi: His assassination.

Imran, like Nawaz Sharif, is also disqualified from contesting elections. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), in a case of legally selling expensive gifts received during official visits but hiding the details, disqualified him in October 2022. The government and the army can be expected to persevere on such grounds. Foisting more legal cases against Imran is certainly another possibility. It is a tried and tested method in Pakistan and one that is often assisted by the judiciary. Nawaz was the victim earlier, and there have been many more before that. There are already instances of increasing chatter on social media charging Imran with misappropriation of government property. However, even if Imran’s disqualification stands, the PTI could win the election and Imran could get his disqualification removed as long as the army plays ball.

The larger question

The PTI is essentially a one-man party that has ridden on the charisma of Imran Khan. It is also its greatest vulnerability. The target and the stakes involved for the army may be tempting enough. It would be the army’s call. But this time, it would have to grapple with the popular backlash that will inevitably follow if anything happens to Imran. Now, the army would, in addition, have to cater to the possibility that it may itself be a divided house when it comes to Imran Khan.

The knives are out in Pakistan in the backdrop of economic stress. Its democracy and civil-military relations are, as usual, at loggerheads. The larger question is whether, at the end of this round of civil-military confrontation, there is the possibility of civil control over the military gaining some ground or the military staging a coup at some stage or retaining backseat driving. The answer, for now, is blowing in the wind. India should watch and learn.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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