Picture: REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz- Supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party travel on a vehicle during a protest march led by ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, in Sawabi, Pakistan May 25, 2022.
By Hamid Mir
After months of intrigue, Pakistan finally has a new army chief. The job is going to Lt. Gen. Asim Munir, a former head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the powerful military intelligence agency. Many Pakistanis breathed a sigh of relief at the news, which has – at least for the moment – warded off fears of a fresh political crisis. The reason: In recent months, ex-prime minister Imran Khan has been pushing for a confrontation with the senior army leadership that some feared might lead to the army announcing martial law. For the moment, at least, that threat appears to have been averted.
The current situation would have been hard to predict back in 2018, when Khan became prime minister in an election that has been described as one of the dirtiest in the country’s history, marked by intimidation, corruption and extensive vote-rigging. It is widely assumed that Khan – who was toppled from power by a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April – benefited from the army’s support at the time. Khan’s main political opponent, Nawaz Sharif, blamed then-army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa for toppling his government. (Khan tried to turn the tables by accusing Sharif of exploiting the army’s support.)
During his first months in office, Khan enjoyed close ties with the military. His good relationship with the generals raised his credibility in India’s eyes, which helped him launch many initiatives to normalize relations with Delhi, including a cease-fire achieved last year.
But differences soon began to emerge. Gen. Bajwa wanted to move fast in improving relations with India, but Khan was more cautious. In the fall of 2021, Khan became involved in a conflict with the army over the fate of Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, whom Khan wanted to retain as the head of the ISI despite the army’s plans to transfer him to another position. Khan’s opponents began to suspect that he was planning to appoint Hameed as the new army chief to achieve his own political objectives. (The current chief of the ISI, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum, recently accused Khan of demanding unspecified “illegal” favors from the military.) When the opposition realized that Khan no longer enjoyed the army’s support, they seized advantage of his vulnerability by removing him through a vote of no confidence.
That is the source of Khan’s current grudge against the military: He believes that his former allies betrayed him politically, and he’s been trying to get revenge by doing everything he can in the past few weeks to block the appointment of a new army chief. It’s important to remember that Khan isn’t just an ordinary Pakistani opposition leader – he’s a major power player. His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), controls two big provinces, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as well as two smaller regions, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. The president of Pakistan, Arif Alvi, is a former member of the PTI; he serves as the supreme commander of the armed forces, meaning that the prime minister is supposed to consult him, at least formally, on the appointment of any new army chief. Khan tried to enlist Alvi’s help to block a new appointment; in the end, though, the president took a more cautious stance, advising Khan not to alienate the new head of the army.
Khan’s resentment of the military has led him to extremes. Lately he’s been accusing the army of trying to kill him, blaming a serving general (as well as the government) for involvement in the recent shooting that left Khan wounded. Yet there is zero evidence for the claim. (The shooter, who was arrested, cited religious reasons for the attack, though his motives are not entirely clear.) In recent days, Khan tried to add fuel to his feud with the military by staging a major rally in the garrison town of Rawalpindi. In the end, though, he decided to call off a planned march on nearby Islamabad, the capital, to avoid causing “havoc,” he said.
Khan’s attempts to foment instability by stirring up conflict with the army probably serve his larger goal of pushing for fresh elections this winter. Many politicians think that Khan is intentionally trying to provoke a state of martial law because he wants to become a political martyr to avoid disqualification under corruption charges. Khan himself said in a recent interview: “Let there be martial law, I am not scared.”
Bajwa, the outgoing head of the army, just gave a speech in which he affirmed that the military will stay out of politics in the future. Yet the fact remains that no issue is generating more public discussion and concern now than the role of the army. Ironically, it’s all thanks to Khan’s maneuverings.
If Khan, as he claims, truly supports an apolitical role for the military, he has my support. Remaining neutral will be the biggest challenge for the new army chief. He must prove that he is not taking sides and that he is not more powerful than the parliament, which should be allowed to shape the country’s foreign policy – especially regarding Afghanistan and relations with India – without interference. The new army chief should focus his efforts on the deteriorating law-and-order situation in the areas bordering Afghanistan, where his soldiers are coming under attack every day.
But Pakistan’s state of political uncertainty doesn’t end there. Now that his bid to block the army chief appointment has failed, Khan has shocked everyone with a new move: He has announced that the PTI will pull out of the provincial assemblies it controls. He has played his final card. Pakistanis are bracing for what happens next.
Hamid Mir is a contributing columnist for the Global Opinions section focused on Pakistani politics and geopolitical issues in the region.
This article was first published in The Washington Post.