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Imran Khan vs the Pakistan Army — or why the Kaptaan is marching to Islamabad

Imran Khan's declared intention is to force an early election, and he has seized the moment of public outrage at the killing of a Pakistani journalist. But past long marches in the country have succeeded only with the military's help. And Khan has burnt his bridges, at least for now.

If the march is allowed to be completed, Imran expects to reach the Pakistani capital on November 4 — that is, in a week's time. (Twitter/@PTIofficial)

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan is on a “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad. He hit the road on Friday and, if allowed to complete the journey, aims to reach his destination on November 4. Along the way, he expects to gather tens of thousands of supporters to lay siege to the capital so that he can spook the “establishment” and force the government into calling an early election.

Khan has already disrupted the status quo, forcing ISI chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum to appear before the media to give his side of the story on the tensions between the army and the former PM. It was the first time any head of Pakistan’s powerful spy agency had addressed a press conference, and many saw it as a defensive move against the seemingly unstoppable Khan — the first crack in the wall against which he has hurled several stones since falling out with army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa last year.

Imran Khan’s gambit

Khan is an unlikely civilian combatant against the army, which managed his election and government formation in 2018. The two fell off the “same page” (to which Khan had referred many times) because, one, the army was worried about the bad name his government’s incompetence was giving the “hybrid” experiment and, two, Khan tried to retain Lt Gen Faiz Hameed as ISI chief as his insurance for re-election at a time when Gen Bajwa had decided to appoint someone else to the post.

This set in motion a chain of events that led to the no-confidence motion in Parliament, which Khan lost. He alleged that his removal was orchestrated by the US together with Bajwa and the political opposition — tapping into a deep vein of anti-Americanism that runs through a vast section of Pakistanis, and which leads to conspiracy theories about the US finding immediate purchase.

The killing in Kenya of Pakistani journalist and television anchor Arshad Sharif this week, gave more grist to Khan’s mill. A popular face on TV, the 50-year-old Sharif had made no secret of his allegiance to Khan and his antipathy for Bajwa. He had left the country a couple of months ago, reportedly on the advice of Khan and other leaders of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, who convinced him that his life was in danger. Sharif had been charged with sedition after a Khan aide appeared to suggest on his show that the army should revolt against its leaders. The aide was arrested and allegedly tortured.

Why Sharif chose Kenya, and the circumstances of his killing by the police there, remain unclear. But in Pakistan, it is widely seen as a targeted hit ordered by the country’s “deep state”. The shock of the killing has brought the country’s polarised journalist community together. In a country where the body of journalist Saleem Shehzad (2011) was found in an irrigation canal, and where the attacks on Hamid Mir (2014) and Absar Alam (2021) are still fresh in memory, Lt Gen Anjum’s attempt to distance the ISI from the Sharif’s killing have not succeeded.

 

Khan decided not to waste this moment of high public anger. Making Sharif and his family’s cause his own, he announced the date of the long march, and set off two days after the journalist’s funeral, which was attended by large numbers of mourners. He subsequently called the ISI chief’s press conference “foolish” — and said if he started to talk about all that happened behind closed doors, “it will ruin the army and Pakistan’s national interests”.

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Long march and the army

But it is the outcome of the long march — and the position of the new army chief after Bajwa steps down at the end of next month — that will decide who emerges on top from this chaos.

Khan has been talking of democracy, but as Prime Minister, he rarely attended Parliament — and has shown even less regard for democratic processes and institutions since being ejected from office. By his own admission, he was until recently trying to negotiate terms for holding elections with the military. He is not against a role for the army in national affairs, he only wants it to serve his political interests.

But Khan’s desire for an army subordinate to his authority — inverting the familiar Pakistani model of a civilian government under the thumb of the army — may be a bridge too far. If push comes to shove, the Pakistan Army may well decide to exercise its endgame option and take over power.

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Long marches, which have a long history in Pakistan, have succeeded in achieving desired outcomes only when the “militablishment” has been supportive of them. The former chief justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhary used the long march instrument with success because the militablishment had decided that Pervez Musharraf had become too much of a liability and had to go — after the terms of his departure had been negotiated.

On the other hand, Khan’s 2014 long march aimed at getting Nawaz Sharif to resign and order another election found no purchase despite his not-so-veiled appeal to the “third umpire”. The army did not rise to the bait, and Khan went home to fight another day.

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik’s long march of 2017 was successful because the Army was backing it to destabilise the PML(N) government, and to give Khan, who supported the protest, a readymade platform.

But the Labbaik’s long march of 2021 failed because the army had by then withdrawn its support.

Role of Bajwa’s successor

How seriously the new chief views Khan’s attacks against Bajwa will determine his relationship with Khan going forward. Khan wanted elections before the leadership transition in the army because he wanted to appoint his own candidate as chief — even though at least three times in the past, “favourite” generals, once elevated, have turned on their political benefactors. It remains unclear who is on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s shortlist.

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In recent days, the term “Kakar formula” has been used repeatedly to explain the aim of Khan’s long march. The reference is to Gen Waheed Kakar, army chief from 1993 to 1996, who stepped in to defuse a spiralling political standoff between then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by getting both to resign as Benazir Bhutto led a long march into Islamabad. The new caretaker government called fresh elections, and as Kakar stayed neutral, Bhutto won.

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Much will depend upon whom the army under its new chief feels is more trustworthy — the present ruling coalition that has a history of being anti-army but is now depending on the “boys in khaki” to stand by its side, or Khan, who may have burnt his bridges with Bajwa but who might still strike a deal with Bajwa’s successor. The last few months have divided the army horizontally, with middle-level officers openly supporting Khan. The new chief’s move will be aimed at strengthening his own position vis a vis Khan, getting the army behind him, and restoring the fauj’s image as Pakistan’s most powerful “institution”. It has done this before — in 1971, in 1977, in 1999 and, in more innovative ways, from 2008 onwards. It is unlikely to let go now.

First published on: 28-10-2022 at 16:52 IST
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