Why The Army May Triumph Over Imran Khan In Pakistan’s Monumental Power Struggle
By ATUL ANEJA
The May 9 pinpointed attacks in Pakistan on key military installations by angry mobs, piqued by the unceremonious arrest of Imran Khan at Islamabad High Court, has been a pivotal moment that may have sealed the fate of the former Prime Minister following his lengthy crusade against the Army.
For the first time in Pakistan’s turbulent history, angry insurrectionists targeted several military institutions, the symbols of ultimate power in the South Asian nation. In doing so, Khan and his supporters may have breached all the established red lines. The chances of a full-scale blowback by the military, with the aim of removing him as a contender for power, seems to be coming thick and fast.
The reckless attacks on military icons, shown over television screens, have stunned audiences across the globe.
The big targets included: Jinnah House, Lahore Corps Commander Residence Lahore; General Headquarters, Rawalpindi; Inter-Services Intelligence Sector Headquarters in Faisalabad; Air Force Base at Mainsail and Shehbaz Sharif’s private residence at Lahore.
Following these events and with the prestige, in fact, even the existence of the military in its present form under threat, Army Chief Asim Munir seems to be slowly gaining the upper hand in the bitter power struggle with Khan.
There are two key reasons which show that the balance of power may be swinging in the direction of the military.
First, the process of intimidation targeting the leadership of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) seems to be working. To dismantle the PTI’s leadership core, most of the party bigwigs have been arrested, except Imran Khan who is, as of now, out of jail, following the intervention by the Pakistan Supreme Court. His key lieutenants, including former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Fawad Choudhary, and several others are behind bars. Former Human Rights minister Shireen Mazari was dramatically arrested, released and re-arrested.
The military and the government alike have vowed to try the vandals who attacked army installations under the Pakistan Army Act, the Official Secrets Act, and other draconian laws.
To sow fear in the rank and file, Pak security forces have now begun a hunt for the insurrectionists, using CCTV footage, but also by announcing cash rewards to those who can identify the miscreants.
Army Chief Asim Munir has also lent his weight to deter a repeat of the May 9 incidents. On Wednesday, he warned that the armed forces would not allow May 9-like incidents to happen “again at any cost”.
The pressure has begun to tell. President Arif Alvi, a known supporter of Khan has begun to distance himself from the former Prime Minister. Imran Khan should openly condemn the May 9 events, President Arif Alvi said. In a TV interview, he also advocated action against the miscreants involved in the events.
The PTI ranks are also seeing their first desertions. One of the PTI founding members Aamer Mehmood Kiani not only quit the party but also politics over May 9 incidents of arson and vandalism. Two PTI lawmakers of Sindh Assembly – Sanjay Gangwani and Karim Bux Gabol – also announced their resignation from the party.
Second, despite all his mastery of the social media and television to convey his message, Khan has received little support among countries abroad. Most significantly, both China and the United States, except for perfunctory comments have kept silent, while the military begins to turn the screws on the former PM.
Having identified that Pakistan as the gateway to the Indian Ocean via Gwadar – a strategy to reduce dependence on the US dominated Malacca straits for its trade, it is natural that the Chinese, given their huge strategic stakes would have no love lost for Khan, who was once seen as their favorite. The logic of national interest would therefore dictate their readiness to deal with anyone in power in Pakistan who can deliver on their agenda.
It is interesting that Chinese interaction with the Pak military has seen a spike recently. Last month, China’s Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Wang Yi met Gen. Munir in Beijing. According to an official Chinese readout “Wang Yi said that the Pakistani army is a staunch defender of Pakistan’s national security and stability, and a staunch defender of China-Pakistan “ironclad” friendship.”
Given their tussle with the Chinese in Pakistan, the Americans would be most comfortable in seeing the political exit of Khan, known for his pro-Beijing leanings. For the Americans, dealing with a triumphant military, would be a blessing to protect their core interests, which includes maintenance of tight control over the Pakistani nukes.
Besides, with the military in de facto power, Washington has a much better chance of clawing back its influence in AfPak following their exit from Kabul in August 2021. Pakistan’s geography would always beckon the Americans, given the South Asia country’s location on the doorstep of Central Asia and the Middle East.
Finally, if there is any hope for Imran, it is the perceived divisions within the military. For a long time, there have been reports of divisions within the military, led by Khan’s one time favorite and now retired Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, a onetime ISI chief. But it is highly unlikely that a critical mass has been achieved that would allow the army to implode, triggering civil war-like conditions.
While the dye seems to have been cast, Khan’s ability to muster street power, which is likely to recede, in case of a full-scale confrontation with the military, cannot be brushed away. In anticipation of such an eventuality the enforcement of a state of emergency in Pakistan is not far-fetched. In response to a question by a television station following the May 9 vandalism, Pakistan’s defense minister Khawaja Asif said: “If the situation continues like this, then emergency is a constitutional option, no chances of martial law in the country.” (IANS)