Will Imran Khan stoop to conquer?

Unlike in India, the Army in Pakistan has lost credibility in recent years. But Imran Khan is still likely to climb down and mend fences with the army. He has little to lose and everything to gain

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in hospital after 
he was hit by bullets in an assassination attempt in Punjab’s Wazirabad
Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in hospital after he was hit by bullets in an assassination attempt in Punjab’s Wazirabad

Saurabh Kumar Shahi

A few months ago, sources say, at the Corps Commander conference of the Pakistan Army, the then Lt. General Asim Munir, who was one of the six senior-most Lieutenant Generals in line for the top job, made a forceful point about ending military interference in civilian matters of Pakistan. The incumbent Shehbaz Sharif government chose him as the COAS this week.

It was in many ways a repeat of 2014 when in a similar CC conference, the then Commander of X Corps had struck a discordant note over a section of Pakistan military favouring Imran Khan by tacitly supporting his dharna trying to browbeat the government in power. That person was General Qamar Bajwa.

These two incidents illustrate how the military-civilian relationship in Pakistan is a layered game that has bewildered both Pakistanis and non-Pakistani observers alike. However, as General Asim Munir picks up the baton, he is facing a situation unprecedented in Pakistan’s history—widespread resentment, even hatred, for the army that cuts across the class divide.

The anti-fauj segment of Pakistani society has traditionally come from the more elite and culturally mobile upper and upper-middle class Pakistanis. However, since this segment was quite small, the previous army chiefs could easily afford to brush them aside. Not anymore.

The army’s role in the removal of Imran Khan’s government last year has swayed his supporters—many of whom come from middle and urban lower-middle classes—so extremely alienated from the army that what was once said behind closed doors and muted voices has bubbled up outside in hitherto unseen ways.

In lieu, the army will give Khan the freedom to conduct domestic affairs. If not, a civil war or a massive bloodbath is a real possibility. There are now many more Pakistanis willing to take on the fauj than ever in its history
) Gen Asim Munir is the new Pakistan army chief
) Gen Asim Munir is the new Pakistan army chief

Pakistani digital space is replete with satires, lampoons, memes and unadulterated abuses targeting the army. While a small segment does make a distinction between Gen. Bajwa and the institution, the majority sees them as the same. Army top brass realises that this is a situation that is not tenable. The army draws a large number of its ranks and files from these classes and any simmering resentment among them is bound to percolate inside the lower ranks of the defence forces.

Gen. Munir’s first order of work will be to de-hyphenate Gen. Bajwa’s handiwork with that of the institution. This is easier said than done. Gen Munir’s falling out with Imran Khan when the former was Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was one of the issues that triggered the feud between Khan and the army. There is a lot of bad blood here. Will they be ready to ignore it and work together? If the past is any indication, they can.

Unlike Khan’s supporters who want an aar-paar ki ladai with Pak fauj, Imran Khan is a realist and wants a ladder for the climbdown. Gen. Munir can give Khan that space. He can promise non-intervention. In lieu, the General will ask the PTI chief to not meddle in the sec-op area, especially in the operations against TTP. While Imran Khan’s love for the Taliban is well-known— he has been given the moniker of ‘Taliban Khan’—but will he be willing to squander everything that he has achieved politically in all these years for this one issue? That seems unlikely. Thus, rapprochement looks feasible, especially given the fact that Khan has been open for a deal with the army.

What can that climbdown achieve for Imran Khan? Several things. For starters, the incumbent government can fall easily and a snap election will become inevitable. This helps Khan’s and PTI’s prospects in many ways. Shehbaz Sharif’s government has squandered massive political capital in the last eight months. Whatever little anger that people had against Imran Khan’s economic performance has now largely been forgotten. Shehbaz Sharif is trying to make some cosmetic improvements in the economic situation before the polls to regain lost base. Obviously Imran Khan doesn’t want to give him those eight months to do so.

Khan, on the other hand, is riding on an unprecedented wave. If polls are called, his party is going to secure a comfortable majority without a question. The string of bypolls has affirmed it. Not only has PTI massively dented PMLN’s and PPP’s bases in Punjab and Saraiki belts respectively, he has completely gobbled up smaller, but once powerful, parties such as ANP, JI and MQM.

In Karachi, MQM is now unable to hold on to even those areas that have an overwhelming Muhajir population. In mixed localities off Lyari and Orangi, it has faced a drubbing so massive that it doesn’t know how to respond. The same has happened with ANP in its strongholds of central and eastern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. In the recently held bypolls, ANP’s top brass was smitten to the ground even in those areas that they had not lost in the past several decades. JI’s situation is even more pathetic. While a large section of its voters in KPK has shifted to PTI, in Balochistan the party has splintered with a big faction going on to merge with PTI. In PoK—PTI’s weakest province—it managed to become the single-largest party in the local polls this week.

This makes the electoral scenario in 2023 very favourable for Khan. Khan realises that if he gets the majority on his own, and is not dependent on shifty allies like MQM, his government cannot fall through shenanigans. This gives him the added opportunity to then further clip army’s wings on the back of massive popular support. A tactical retreat, a climbdown, now can bear good results in the medium to long run. By asking his governments in KPK and Punjab to resign this week, he has thrown the gauntlet already.

The Establishment has tried its best to take the sheen off Khan, but it has not worked at all. Even after much sleuthing, they could not find any instance of substantial corruption that they could pin on him. The best they could come up with was the issue of buying gifts from the Toshakhana at a discounted price. In itself, it is not a legal shortcoming but a moral one. Compared to the swindling leaders from PMLN, PPP or even General Bajwa himself perpetrated, the Toshakhana controversy was so lightweight that it died its natural death.

Then there’s the issue of fanatical supporters as well. In this, PTI voters are like Modi’s fans in India. No amount of convincing can make them change their opinion of their leader. And that is evident from how they behave on digital platforms and how they run down their opponents. Elsewhere, a stronger Imran Khan will have more breathing room when it comes to conducting foreign affairs. While the rhetoric of ‘India ka yaar’ against Nawaz Sharif reaped fruits domestically during a small window, Imran Khan has not been using it explicitly anymore because he doesn’t have to. Operation Swift Retort has already established his image as a strong leader, and anti-India rhetoric has simply had no takers in Pakistan’s electoral politics for a long time now.

As far as the thaw in the relationship is concerned, India’s approach to UAE for facilitating a rapprochement with Pakistan has borne fruit. The ceasefire at the LoC stands. This has given India the much-needed breathing space to transfer a couple of divisions to its eastern border with China. Pakistan, both the civilian and military structures, sees this as a favour to India and wants India to respond to it concretely. Musharraf’s Formula, in their mind, should be the starting point. If the relationship between Imran and the ‘establishment’ improves, they can jointly come around with the proposal.

What’s in it for Gen. Munir then? He can draw down and preserve the institution. It will be a tall order to re-establish its izzat-o-iqbal once again but it is not entirely impossible. In Raheel Sharif, he has a book to take a leaf out of, that is, focus on the security aspect and leave the daily grind to the civilians.

Imran Khan can bargain and promise to not interfere in the way the army deals with the files on Afghanistan till the time it is not crossing that line again where it is fighting America’s war for her. This was the issue that forced Bajwa to pull the rug from under Khan’s feet. If this issue is settled, the army will have no interest in muzzling its government. In lieu, the army gives him the freedom to conduct domestic affairs. If not, a civil war or a massive bloodbath is a real possibility. There are now far too many Pakistanis willing to take on the fauj than there ever were in its history. This cannot be ignored or summarily brushed aside.

Fortunately, we will know the direction it is going within a few weeks itself.

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