The army has for now decided to contain Khan and throw its weight behind the Shehbaz Sharif government. This is needed to also stem the political instability and economic stress since both were feeding each other. How Pakistan’s “civilian face” does it needs to be closely watched … Dr Sakariya Kareem
The firm but remote hand of the Pakistan Army can be discerned from the swiftness with which former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested, within two days of his accusing a serving major general of trying to assassinate him.
He was arrested dramatically on the premises of the Islamabad High Court, not by the police but by the Rangers and paramilitary forces, in one of the hundred-odd graft cases. The high court, led by Chief Justice Amer Faruq, expressed indignation and summoned the Interior Secretary, other top officials and the government lawyers, but within hours, ended it all and declared the arrest legal.
The army, under its Chief, General Asim Munir, whose appointment Imran had sought to block, both in power and after being ousted from the prime ministership, has rallied its own forces. For now, the younger military brass that wanted to give Imran a second chance at power has been sidestepped. Khan’s accusing one of their own has become the tipping point.
The military-civil establishment that rules Pakistan must have calculated Khan’s popularity that could rise after his arrest. It needed to counter the military’s open denunciation that was damaging its predominant standing within the polity and the perceptions outside that Khan was a ‘proxy’ it had helped to come to power in 2018. It could no longer afford to be the fall guy.
The army has for now decided to contain Khan and throw its weight behind the Shehbaz Sharif government. This is needed to also stem the political instability and economic stress since both were feeding each other. How Pakistan’s “civilian face” does it needs to be closely watched.
Of interest would be managing the perceptions outside. Will the new developments prompt the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to release the USD 1.8 billion economic bailout that Pakistan desperately needs?
Will the Gulf allies also rally to help out and help ease domestic tensions? The United States, the other key factor, had also been unhappy with Khan’s relentless campaign that it had ‘conspired’ to oust Khan. Will Washington ask the IMF to release funds?
How will China, unhappy at the security lapses and the poor working of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) ever since Imran took office, respond to the new situation? Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang was in Islamabad for talks and like all with stakes in Pakistan, met the Pakistan Army chief.
There is now a big question mark over the ongoing battle between the Sharif Government and the Supreme Court over the holding of elections that Imran has been demanding ever since he was ousted in April 2022.
Will Chief Justice Bandial take the cue from the Islamabad High Court’s perceived U-turn on the legality of Imran’s arrest? The judiciary has a past record of endorsing the army’s actions.
Imran’s arrest has effectively side-stepped the issue of elections. But since the army would not want to make it appear as an imposition of martial law, some indication of the polls time-table is required. It is needed also to quell the street protests, and to buy time to demolish Imran’s image. The establishment also needs to leverage the Sharif Government since the polls, due in July-August, cannot be postponed indefinitely.
The establishment’s hand is clear. Imran is in a long line – almost all former prime ministers since 1962 have been jailed. But some of them have emerged popular enough to re-take power. The army cannot totally write off Imran. The establishment had preferred Imran to the two political ‘dynasties’ – the Bhutto-Zardari and the Sharifs. But Khan, a maverick, has bitten the hand that fed it. Will it take the cue from Washington which ignored Khan and remains upset at his hostility? Washington needs Pakistan less since it withdrew from Afghanistan, but would need it to ‘contain’ Chinese expansion into the region and to keep its toe-hold in Kabul.
Till a new equation evolves, Army and America, to tweak a well-known saying, have left Imran to Allah’s wishes. But none can ignore Pakistan and its functioning anarchy.