Main Image Credit Bent on confrontation: former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at a rally on 26 March, protected by a bulletproof barrier. Image: Associated Press / Alamy
If the army and government continue to block regional and national elections, they will only increase the scale of Imran Khan’s eventual victory. Fear of Imran’s brand of careless populism coincides with low public confidence in the army and with a renewed threat from Afghan-based terrorist groups. The looming confrontation presents real hazards for a country and people facing economic distress.
There is little doubt that former Prime Minister Imran Khan is the overwhelming favourite to win the regional and national elections in Pakistan. That is why the army and the government are together stretching every legal and constitutional sinew to delay the elections and to disqualify him from standing.
The irony is that Imran has been lucky. His dismissal by Parliament in April 2022 could not have come at a better time for his popularity. Since he was removed from office the economy (never exactly robust) has tanked and prices have risen exponentially. In March 2023, food inflation was reported as 47.1% for urban areas, leading to an unprecedented cost of living crisis. The government’s bid for an IMF (International Monetary Fund) bailout has still not succeeded. The IMF has asked Pakistan to first secure loans from its traditional funders (China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE), all of which have been slow to come forward with sufficient largesse.
A second irony is that the present government, a coalition between archenemies the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), would have been the answer to many prayers in the 1990s and 2000s. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who was always the more talented of the Sharif brothers, has Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilawal, as his foreign minister and a good understanding with the new Chief of Army Staff Asim Munir. This is the sort of unity which Pakistan has needed for decades, but it has come far too late. Their political methodology, based on the old formula of feudal loyalties and back-room deals, seems old-fashioned and tired compared with the new star in the firmament.
And yet there is nothing particularly new about Imran. He is 70 years old and his greatest cricketing triumph, in the 1992 World Cup, was over 30 years ago – long before most Pakistanis were born. (The median age of Pakistan’s 220 million population is 22.8). He founded his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in 1996, but it gained little traction in a two-party system where the PML and PPP were dominant. He was always seen as a political lightweight, known best for his good looks, high-profile marriages and reputation as a former London socialite. The Pakistani elite in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi would routinely poke fun at his intellectual limitations.
Since the NATO exit from Afghanistan, Pakistan no longer enjoys any leverage over Western foreign policy
Imran’s political fortunes were transformed in 2017 as the army cast around for a political figure to champion in the 2018 elections. As the dominant institution in the country, the army has always taken an interest in politics, and has often championed a political party. In 1990 it plucked Nawaz Sharif (Shehbaz’s older brother) from relative obscurity to lead the PML. Later the army tolerated the PPP government of Benazir’s widower Asif Zardari (as president) until 2013, when he left office with record-low popularity levels. Nawaz Sharif returned until he was disqualified from holding public office following the Panama Papers leaks.
Having run out of options, the army favoured Imran in the 2018 elections, and worked with him reasonably well for the first few years. However, Imran became increasingly irked by the army’s control over many areas of policy, particularly its stranglehold on foreign policy towards India and Afghanistan. In turn, the army was frustrated by Imran’s attempts to influence military appointments. Things came to a head when Imran alleged that a ‘cipher telegram’ describing a meeting with a US official in Washington comprised a foreign conspiracy to overthrow his government. This patently false allegation played well to Imran’s large rallies of supporters.
Imran has a tendency to fall back on anti-Western rhetoric as a reliable means of drumming up popular support, such as describing Osama bin Laden in June 2020 as ‘a martyr’ and welcoming the Taliban as having broken ‘the shackles of slavery’ on the NATO departure from Afghanistan in August 2021. Some of his views (such as his opposition to US drone strikes) are firmly held; others smack of short-term opportunism. His visit to Moscow (against advice) on the day of the Ukraine invasion reinforced his reputation for poor judgement.
Neither Imran nor the current government are responsible for the food price crisis, which largely results from the Ukraine war. However, Imran must shoulder a share of the blame, along with the army, for having facilitated the return of the Afghan Taliban to power in Kabul. Their naivety in believing that the Afghan Taliban and its affiliated Haqqani group would arrest and deport Pakistani Taliban (TTP) terrorists to Pakistan was as bizarre as it was catastrophic. Instead, the TTP now poses a greater terrorist threat to Pakistan than at any time since the Peshawar school massacre of 2014. Furthermore, since the NATO exit from Afghanistan, Pakistan no longer enjoys any leverage over Western foreign policy. China, too, has privately expressed irritation to Pakistan about the Afghan outcome, as the Afghan Taliban also refuses to hand over Uighur militants. Meanwhile, the flagship China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) continues to lose momentum due to Pakistan’s economic crisis.
The prospect of an adversarial relationship between an occasionally reckless populist leader and an increasingly unpopular army could be disastrous
At present, both the army and Imran are bent on confrontation. Both sides need to reconsider. The army has its lowest popularity ratings since independence in 1947. While there is no serious prospect of mutiny, the Corps Commanders need to consider the political loyalties of the jawans (enlisted soldiers). Furthermore, the army needs to keep Imran safe. It was only 15 years ago that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in circumstances the army could probably have prevented. An attempt was made against Imran in November 2022, but a successful assassination of such a popular figure could destabilise the country. At the same time, Imran would be wise to avoid direct confrontation with the army. His criticisms have been unprecedented and not always constructive. The former army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, acknowledged that the army had to change, and Imran, as the next prime minister, may have opportunities to assist such changes in a collaborative manner.
For all that Pakistan’s army has become too powerful since 1947, and for all the need for it to reduce its political and economic involvement, the prospect of an adversarial relationship between an occasionally reckless populist leader and an increasingly unpopular army could be disastrous. If Imran were – wittingly or otherwise – to secure support from extremist groups, he could destabilise Pakistan’s hard-won territorial integrity and stability.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG
Senior Associate Fellow