Confrontation to continue in Pakistan

Harsha Kakar

The assassination attempt on Imran Khan last week enhanced instability in the country. Imran had been stating, since the beginning of his current agitation, that he was expecting an attempt on his life. This announcement was not based on intelligence but reality. In Pakistan, anyone threatening status quo will be removed from the scene, Imran being no exception. Reporters who are privy to the army’s secrets, activists who accuse the army or politicians who can threaten their power have been killed. Benazir Bhutto, Fatima Jinnah, Karima Baloch and Arshad Sharif are few examples. Even those abroad are not safe. Never has any investigation into their deaths been successfully completed nor anyone held accountable.
A warning was given to Imran by the DG ISI, General Nadeem Anjum, when he addressed a press conference, but Imran refused to bite. On the contrary, Imran rebuked Nadeem, believing he was untouchable. Imran had also threatened to reveal secrets which could embarrass the army, considering this as an insurance. He had to be handled. The issue was who would be tasked to take out Imran. The army would never be directly involved. It would be too much of a risk. Religious groups such as the TLP (Tehreek-e-Labbaik) which were supported and exploited by the deep state were an ideal choice. It is always easy to term any killing in Pakistan as a case of religious extremism.
The fact that Imran survived with minor injuries took confrontation between him and state institutions to unexpected levels. Imran immediately accused the current leadership, PM Shehbaz Sharif and Interior Minister, Rana Sanaullah Khan, alongside Major General Faisal of the ISI as being behind his attack. The lodging of an FIR to begin investigation is held up due to the naming of a serving army official.
With accusations made public, Imran has closed all doors for negotiations. He cannot back down from his statements as it would show him in poor light. Never has any Pakistani politician threatened, insulted and challenged the army hierarchy in a manner Imran has done. The army, on its part, has denied all involvement in the incident and demanded that Imran be legally prosecuted for tarnishing its image. Imran believed that since he has the support of the middle and lower ranks of the army as also a few generals, the army would treat him with kid gloves. However, the unexpected happened. Now all gloves are off.
Imran and his party leaders have instigated the public and violent protests have begun. These will stem after a while. They cannot be sustained for long. Imran has been advised medical rest for about six weeks and hence cannot continue his grand march to Islamabad. His only option is to keep temperatures on the boil by ranting and sticking to his accusations.
This six-week period will give the establishment and the government time to devise future strategies. During this phase the next army chief will be appointed, something Imran desperately wanted to stop. The army will need to plan the permanent ouster of Imran Khan from politics. The government had earlier banned Imran’s speeches from national network, thereby increasing his credibility. By reversing it, they are sending the message that he is no threat.
Imran’s anti-army raving has impacted Rawalpindi’s control over Islamabad. It has severely dented the carefully crafted national image of the army, which could in the long term be damaging. If Imran returns in next elections, he will ensure that the generals no longer have the power to interfere in his governance. This would be unacceptable to the coterie of generals. Imran is hoping that the army chief imposes martial law further impacting the image of Pakistan globally and of the army internally. The army is unlikely to oblige.
Had the assassination succeeded, there would have been a few days of violent protests after which the political scenario would have returned to normal. There is no other leader within the PTI who can carry the masses as Imran has done. It would have signalled the demise of the PTI. Imran’s survival would give credence to his leadership and claims of conspiracy. The leaked video of the confession of the attacker has put at rest any conspiracy theories involving the US or India.
China, which has been Pakistan’s main backer will also desire stability but without Imran. For China, assurance over its investments flow from Rawalpindi, not Islamabad. Hence, before further investments it would need assurance from GHQ, Rawalpindi. A solution to satisfy the Chinese will flow from the next army chief. It is for this reason that the army is contemplating an operation against the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan).
Imran winning in almost all seats in which he recently contested has boosted his confidence. Any elections in the foreseeable future would bring Imran to power, unless massively rigged. He might gain an overwhelming majority which would be difficult to counter. It would provide him with unbridled power adding to concern of the generals. Democratic legal actions to bar him from politics are being pushed, but slowly. They are being contested in courts. It was possibly this that prompted the deep state to act.
Imran has proved that he remains least concerned about the impact of the floods, the suffering of the masses, the economic slowdown and the global image of Pakistan. For him, the only concern is regaining power. His fake narrative is being lapped up because the government has no politician who can match Imran’s charisma. Imran’s image received a boost with the assassination attempt. He has emerged from the attack far stronger and nationally popular.
He is being seen as an individual who has challenged the might of the army and survived. The anti-army protests in Peshawar and other places, immediately after the assassination attempt, were release of pent-up anger against the establishment. Imran will now steadily work to channelize this hatred amongst the populace. Simultaneously, the establishment will work to derail him. While the battle for power continues, Pakistan’s economy will keep sliding as investor confidence will be impacted by internal instability. Pak will lose globally.
The author is Major General (Retd)