In Pakistan, a state of war with much drama ahead


With the military making it clear that ‘when the state is in a state of war, the people and the army tackle it together’, things have become far more complicated politically

With the military making it clear that ‘when the state is in a state of war, the people and the army tackle it together’, things have become far more complicated politically

After the failed assassination of former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday while he was on his haqeeqi azadi (genuine freedom) long march, things have just become far more complicated on the political horizon in Pakistan. From the operation theater where he has been undergoing treatment, Mr. Khan has demanded the immediate removal of the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and a senior serving Major General from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). While some of his key lieutenants have threatened revenge over the failed attempt, Mr. Khan has suggested that if these three people were not removed, all hell would break loose. The events of Thursday and the tenor from Mr. Imran Khan and his party were already foretold in the events which took place a week before.

Following the no-confidence vote against Mr. Khan’s government in April this year, resulting in its dismissal, in what has been a tumultuous six months even by Pakistani standards (with allegations, intrigue and alleged conspiracies galore), there was one event last week that outdid everything else that has happened since.

A press meet to note

In what has been labeled as ‘historic’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘the rarest of rare occasions’, and a ‘nuclear option’, for the first time ever, Pakistan’s military’s Director General (DG), ISI, and the Director General, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) held a live joint press conference to respond to and clarify many of the allegations that Mr. Khan had made about the military, and without directly naming him, against the current Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Qamar Javed Bajwa. In the press conference, the DG, ISI, who according to media reports was the ‘first spymaster to address a live news conference’, said (without naming Mr. Khan) ‘you meet army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa at night and then call him a traitor in the day’. The DG, ISI also revealed that days before the no-confidence motion against Mr. Khan’s government was passed. mr. Khan had, in March, offered an ‘unlimited extension in tenure’ to Gen. Bajwa in return for ensuring that the vote did not take place. The DG, ISI added that he was present when this offer was made: ‘If you thought he was a traitor, why would you do that?’ he asked, in an obvious reference to Mr. Khan. By every measure, this press conference with the military’s ‘big guns’ (as the media called them), was historical, unprecedented, and revealed much about the state of Pakistan’s political economy, perhaps as never before.

Close ties

The Pakistan military’s close relationship with Mr. Khan goes back at least four years when the general elections were held in 2018 and he became the Prime Minister. At that time there were media reports that the election results were managed by the military and its agencies to ensure that Mr. Khan’s party had a winning hand. Allegations were made prior to the elections that pre-election rigging had taken place, where a number of potential candidates had received phone calls from unlisted numbers insisting that they switch party loyalties and support Mr. Khan’s party. Such calls did not go unanswered and loyalties shifted overnight, resulting in Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf getting the largest number of votes and seats to form a coalition government in August 2018. In a stinging and bold editorial after the DG, ISI’s press conference, Pakistan’s newspaper of record, Dawn, wrote: “It is stunning how spectacularly the PTI and the military have fallen out. There is now little question that the military establishment, especially the ISI, played a key role in bringing the PTI to power.”

Throughout the nearly four year period Mr. Khan was Prime Minister, all other parties in the opposition called him a ‘selected’ Prime Minister. While the combined Opposition worked through parliamentary and constitutional means to oust the government, as Prime Minister, Mr. Khan had the full support of the military establishment; he repeatedly gloated over this fact, saying that for the first time in Pakistan’s parliamentary history, the government and the military were ‘on the same page’. When they were on the same page, Gen. Bajwa was able to get an extension of tenure by all parties through Parliament, which includes those in Opposition; the resolution in Parliament was passed in record time, with a few, mostly from the religious parties, voting against it.

While Mr. Khan’s government was a failure when it came to running the country, it remained on whatever page the military wanted it to be on. In November 2021, things began to change; some decisions regarding the appointment of key individuals in the army, including the future of Gen. Bajwa, the incumbent COAS, came up before Mr. Khan. Differences emerged and from November 2021, the combined Opposition became emboldened; probably assured of support from key institutions, it launched a successful no-confidence vote against the Khan government and ousted him from office, a move which may have now backfired.

Finding a new voice

Since then, Mr. Khan has become the new hero of Pakistan — by far the most popular politician. Having led rallies in scores of cities, his party has been able to win seats in the largest province of the Punjab and has formed the government there. In recent by-polls, Mr. Khan himself won six of the eight National Assembly seats. Ironically, having been brought to power by the military, he is now, and single-handedly, the anti-establishment champion of Pakistan’s political set-up. He has found a new voice and a new life while out of power and has taken his politics to the people insisting that elections be held immediately, in the hope that were they to happen, he would ride this popular wave. However, the present government has not agreed to hold early elections, with those who determine things having become ‘neutral’.

As the DG, ISI’s press conference was such an extraordinary event, there has been much speculation as to why there were the ‘big guns’. In a news report in English, and, importantly, in Urdu, Pakistan’s biggest media house, the Jang Group of Newspapers, has asked ‘highly placed military sources’ why a press conference at this level was necessary. The reply, quoted in English and Urdu papers, was: ‘a state of war is an environment that threatens the survival of the state. When the state is in a state of war, the people and the army tackle it together. Be it a soldier or the most senior officer, everyone enters the field.’ mr. Khan and the military in Pakistan have entered a ‘state of war’.

As we know, in war there can be complete annihilation, bloodshed, negotiations, peace and also surrender. What has happened to Imran Khan is simply a continuation of a process which unfolded some weeks ago, with much more drama and histrionics ahead.

S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist based in Karachi, Pakistan. The views expressed are personal



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