Staying true to its historical trend, Pakistan is yet again in a cataclysm. But this time, it is faced with a polycrisis: political, economic, security, and leadership crises unfolding simultaneously. All are taking a toll on the people due to structural discrepancies in Pakistan. These crises deepen with multiple players involved, leading to the polarization of intelligence within the country, creating multiple sources and narratives on prominent issues prevailing in Pakistan.
The recent developments in Pakistan have redrawn the lines that have long existed with a sharper tone.
The former prime minister, Imran Khan, has pushed General Asim Munir, the chief of army staff (COAS), to the front lines. By mounting a scathing attack on the army, Khan wants to rejoice in an anti-establishment label, but the truth is far from the mirage being presented.
The Myth of an Anti-establishment Khan
Get briefed on the story of the week, and developing stories to watch across the Asia-Pacific.
Get the Newsletter
After being deposed in April 2022, Imran Khan adopted a firm stance against the army. He struggled to reconcile the notion that the institution responsible for his ascent to power could so abruptly withdraw its support. His posturing against the establishment, in particular former Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, has given a sense of him being anti-establishment.
But that is nothing less than a myth.
Khan frames his fight as a strict division: either you are with me or against me, and against Pakistan if so. A closer look at his politics shows he is the most pro-establishment leader in Pakistan.
Many of Khan’s cabinet members, like Ghulam Sarwar Khan, Sheikh Rashid, and Fawad Chaudhry, had earlier served under military dictator Pervez Musharraf. When Khan was contesting the election in 2018, many electables were attached to his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) at the behest of the Pakistan Army. Former Army Chief Bajwa and former ISI head Faiz Hameed left no stone unturned to bring Khan to power.
Despite falling out with the army, Khan continues to enjoy the overwhelming support of veterans. Former ISI chiefs Ahmad Shuja Pasha and Zaheerul Islam, who played a key role in propping Khan up, continue to make speeches in his favor. To add more, many members of the PTI are kin of former members of the establishment like Ghulam Ishaq Khan’s grandson Taimur Khan Jhagra, Ayub Khan’s grandson Omar Ayub Khan, Zia-ul Haq’s son Ijaz-ul-Haq, and Chaudhary Pervez Elahi, president of the PTI, who joined the party on Bajwa’s instructions.
Khan tried to avert the no-confidence motion by going as far as offering another extension to Bajwa.
Khan has no qualms with the establishment playing a political role; however, he emphasizes that such engagement should exclusively be on his behalf. He has made multiple attempts to reconcile with the establishment and urged it to bring him back to power. President Arif Alvi facilitated meetings between Khan and Bajwa to arrive at some working arrangements through reconciliation. Alvi also earnestly attempted to act as a bridge between Khan and current Army Chief Munir, but those efforts have fallen on deaf ears.
Asim Munir vs. Imran Khan
The feud between Munir and Khan dates back to June 2019, when Munir was unceremoniously removed from his post as director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI). Khan could not stand Munir’s audacity in presenting him proof of his wife’s corruption.
Khan fought tooth and nail to prevent Munir from becoming the army chief. After failing to prevent Munir’s appointment as the chief of army staff, Khan tried every bit to mend the path with him without success. The army under Asim Munir continued to toe the line set out by his predecessor, Bajwa, of being apolitical and neutral. It was a signal to Khan that the army would not back him.
Although Khan’s campaign appeared for a long time to be a political battle against the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), the ruling coalition, with frequent overtures to the establishment by Khan, he never missed an opportunity to exert pressure on the establishment either. He persistently attacked the army’s leadership indirectly until May 6, when he openly accused Major General Faisal Naseer, the ISI’s director-general for counterintelligence, and a close aide of Munir, of carrying out an assassination attempt in November. Following his accusation, the army’s public relations wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), issued a strongly worded statement deeming Khan’s remarks baseless and warned him of legal action.
But that didn’t deter Khan; on May 9, he issued a video message challenging ISPR’s statement. Later, Khan was arrested by Rangers at the Islamabad High Court. Khan was set free with the Supreme Court’s intervention and bail from the Islamabad High Court. But now the battle lines are drawn: Imran Khan versus Asim Munir. Khan has said on record that Munir is petrified of him and harbors concerns that in the event Khan returns to power, he will de-notify the army chief.
What Emboldened Imran Khan?
The audacious act of challenging the army chief, the most influential person in Pakistan, begs the question: What has emboldened Imran Khan, and how has he managed to do this so far?
If history is a lesson, no Pakistani prime minister has been able to win a fight with the army chief. Some were killed, others jailed, and some went into exile. But Khan has so far proven to be a different case. His boldness stems from several factors.
First, Khan enjoys popular support, particularly among the youth. He has managed to expand his support using a variety of tools, including anti-U.S. sentiments. Khan initially experienced a decline in popularity following his defeat in the no-confidence vote. He floated a baseless foreign conspiracy theory, targeting the United States as responsible for his ouster from power. But over time, this tactic proved advantageous, leading to a boost in Khan’s popularity.
Another element is the politicization of Islam, meant to serve vested personal interests. It is evident in how Khan puts an Islamic touch to his appearances, speeches, and conduct. Khan framed his narrative around “Haq and Batil” (truth and falsehood) and “Sadiq and Amin” (honest and righteous) and labeled his political opponents as “chor-lootera”(thieves and robbers). The failure of opponents to present a counter-narrative became a complementary factor, boosting his popularity.
Second, Khan enjoys enormous support among veterans and within the army and army families, particularly in the mid and lower ranks.
And finally, the most significant source of strength for Khan is all-out support from the judiciary. The judiciary has ensured bail for Khan in every case. The Supreme Court has gone out of its way to aid Khan, even to the extent of re-writing the constitution through its interpretation of Article 63A. Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial has been the strongest advocate for holding Punjab’s provincial election within the constitutionally mandated 90 days. His zeal does not reflect his commitment to uphold the constitution, however, but rather a desire to bring Khan back into power in Punjab. Because of the Supreme Court, Khan was released.
Khan poses a challenge, not only to the incumbent PDM government but also to Munir. The failure to effectively address this challenge could potentially cost Munir his job. He will have to carry the political burden of PDM, too. If he tries to mend ties with Khan and agrees to the election, Khan will be back in power, and his first job might be to fire Munir and bring Faiz Hameed back as DG ISI.
Munir has not yet been able to constitute his team. His choices are constrained by Bajwa, the outgoing chief, who promoted 12 major generals to the rank of lieutenant generals, three more than the required number. Munir is struggling to find men who would be loyal to him and carry out his orders. Establishing and maintaining his authority will not be smooth sailing for Munir. To strengthen his command, Munir will have to weed out the infiltration of Hameed, the former DG ISI, who continues to aid Khan’s quest to regain political reins in Pakistan.
The division within the army has become more profound, and it will be an uphill task for Munir to save the army from the polarization unleashed by Khan. The recent change of the Lahore Corps Commander in the aftermath of violence is just the start of many more changes that are expected in the future.
Munir convened a special Corps Commanders Conference on May 15, 2023. The statement issued by DG ISPR reflects that Munir has no intention to show mercy on Khan. The army has vowed to prosecute the planners, instigators, abetters, and perpetrators of the attacks carried out following Khan’s arrest under relevant laws, including the Pakistan Army Act and Official Secret Act. By holding a special Corps Commanders Conference, Munir has sent a clear message to the rank and file of the Pakistan Army that there is no room for democracy within the institution and that his orders ought to be carried out.
In addition to efforts to consolidate his authority, Munir has conveyed that Khan has crossed the red line and thereby will incur consequences. As a result, the possibility of Khan’s arrest for the second time becomes tangible.
Pakistan is in a state of unparalleled internal division, the likes of which have not been seen since 1971. The tussle between Asim Munir and Imran Khan will only provoke politics of revenge, furthering polarization and thereby deepening the crisis, diluting the writ and structure of the state. The confrontation between the two men to establish their supremacy is framed in a manner that best suits their narrative and justifies their actions. But if history has taught anything, Khan should remember that he might end up like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in his quest to resemble Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.