Instability Looms in Pakistan as Khan and Army Clash

WImran Khan (the Pakistan Prime Minister) posted a picture of an Imran Khan luncheon last month. However, many social media users noted something unusual: While the round table contained 13 chairs, it only had a dozen men.

There was a ghost-like figure in the empty space, which appeared to converse with other people around him. Questions were raised about his identity. image had been doctored. Shortly afterward, local news outlets reported that the country’s new spy chief, Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum, had been erased out of the shot.

The drama began four months earlier, when army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa appointed Anjum to lead the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, which oversees Pakistan’s internal security. Khan delayed his appointment, and publicly supported General Faiz Hameed’s continued in the position, which is widely considered to be an ally. The army chief won his position after a prolonged standoff that lasted several weeks.

Pakistan’s civilian leaders have long clashed with the military, which has ruled the country for about half of its history. Yet if anything, Khan has been criticized for being too close to the army since he promised to oversee a “New Pakistan” rid of corruption and favoritism following his 2018 election win.

Particular scrutiny was placed on his relationship to Hameed. While the law says the premier appoints the ISI chief on the recommendation of the military, the opposition questioned Khan’s motives: Nawaz Sharif, a three-time prime minister, accused Hameed of orchestrating his ouster on corruption charges in 2017 and swinging the election a year later.

Khan’s own actions didn’t help. Besides seeking to keep Hameed at the ISI, the prime minister broke taboos by mentioning a private discussion with the army chief at a public rally, countering the military’s own claims that it doesn’t interfere in politics.

“Naming the army publicly on political forums is the biggest mistake this government has committed,” said Shaista Tabassum, former head of the international relations department at the University of Karachi. Khan and his ministers, she said, “have been publicly dragging the army into politics, saying things like the army is very much behind us or that we enjoy the support of the army chief.”

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That served as the backdrop for last month’s luncheon with Gates, who was in Pakistan to promote a campaign to eradicate polio. Unlike his predecessor, Anjum ordered the media to avoid any pictures or videos of him — leading to the strange altered image of the luncheon with the Microsoft Corp. founder.

The unusual episode provides a glimpse into Khan’s behind-the-scenes tussle over military promotions that has underpinned a raft of troubles facing the 69-year-old former cricket star. A unified opposition is vying to oust him in a confidence vote in the next few days, as Asia’s second-fastest inflation jeopardizes his chances to become the first prime minister in Pakistan’s 75-year history to complete a full term in office.

Even if Khan stays on, his high-stakes showdown with top generals risks leading to months of instability that could determine whether the world’s fifth-most populous nation shifts even further toward China and Russia or leans back to the U.S. and Europe.

The Gates photograph provided a vivid example of how the military was now acting “neutral” toward Khan, signaling to Pakistan’s political parties that he no longer had establishment support. Last year, the army’s tacit backing helped Khan survive a similar challenge when he was forced to test his majority in parliament.

One example shows how this works in practice. Intelligence officers used to call certain politicians who criticised Khan on talk-shows and tell them to keep quiet. Now that’s no longer the case, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified given the sensitivity of the issue.

Khan’s office and Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry didn’t reply to requests for comments. Pakistan security sources called allegations that the army or its affiliated institutions affected the outcome of the 2018 election “baseless and unfounded.” They reiterated that the army has “nothing to do with politics” and blasted claims to the contrary as “disinformation.” The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation referred queries to Khan’s office.

Imran Khan is facing a vote of no confidence

For the military, referred to locally as “the establishment,” Khan once represented stability — especially as the economy recovered from a pandemic-induced contraction. Top generals had a say in every element of the premier’s administration, from foreign policy and security matters to economic decisions. Bajwa and the other generals held regular private meetings with business leaders and policy makers.

But the relationship began to deteriorate, both over Khan’s involvement in military promotions and souring relations with the U.S. Reports said Pakistan’s military, once a top recipient of American arms, has sought a more balanced foreign policy after becoming increasingly reliant on China for weapons.

Ties got off to a bad start just days after Joe Biden’s inauguration, when a Pakistan court ordered the release of four men who had earlier been convicted of decapitating Wall Street Journal bureau chief Daniel Pearl in 2002. It caused outrage in the White House. Biden was there a decade before to watch Navy SEALs enter Pakistan secretly and kill Osama be Laden.

Learn More Pakistan, India and The Trap of Extremism

Biden didn’t invite Khan to his climate summit last April and wouldn’t speak to him on the phone. Relations got worse as the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, with Khan saying the militant group had “broken the shackles of slavery.”

Biden offered Khan a helping hand last year, inviting Khan to his December democracy summit. The Pakistani leader refused to accept the invitation in an unusual move welcomedChina which has paid more than $22.5 billion for projects in the country. Khan is now strengthening ties to Russia and held the first high-level meeting with Vladimir Putin in over two decades, just hours after Putin invaded Ukraine.

Shehbaz Sharif is the leader of the opposition party. He is expected to assume power in Khan’s absence. If he is elected, he has promised to strengthen ties with the U.S. His claim that the army was neutral before the confidence vote is notable, given the fact his elder brother was executed in a coup in 1999. Nawaz Sharif, who was convicted of corruption in an alleged case that he believes is politically motivated, is now self-exiled to London.

The 342-member National Assembly will start a debate on the opposition’s no-confidence motion on Thursday, with a vote expected over the weekend. Khan was defeated by his narrow majority at the National Assembly after his coalition allies pulled support.

Khan pledged that he would continue to serve ahead of the elections. He rallied thousands of supporters in Islamabad last Sunday and claimed “foreign forces” were out to remove him.

Still, a Gallup poll last month showed Khan’s approval rating has dropped to 36% from 40% in 2018, while Nawaz Sharif’s had more than doubled to 55% in that time. Khan lost December’s local election in the stronghold that it had ruled over for eight years. While lawmakers of his party sought to vote out, Khan was defeated.

Economy is one reason. Khan has grappled with some of Asia’s fastest price increases for a few years now while managing a $6 billion program with the International Monetary Fund that calls for tax increases set to further boost the cost of living. Khan unexpectedly reduced fuel and electricity prices this month to calm public anger. This was in violation of the IMF agreement.

Khan winning would allow him to silence his critics, who believe he is only able to win with the help of the army. However, Khan’s loss could be used to shift blame and deflect responsibility for the current economic slowdown that is expected to occur before the 2023 national elections.

“Nobody will be going to say in future he is selected or he came to power with their support,” Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, a professor at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. “This would in a way become political mileage for Khan in the next elections.”

Even so, there’s one more big question mark if Khan stays as prime minister: Will he allow Bajwa, the general he sparred with, to extend his time as army chief when his term expires in November? Khan may instead choose to install Hameed as his former ISI chief and make him a strong friend.

Such a move “will trigger a new controversy in Pakistani politics and within the military,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based analyst who has written several books on the nation’s army. He said Khan is responsible for the current problems with his military.

“Khan can’t maintain human relations — he creates unnecessary rifts,” Rizvi said. “The military is at distance and will maintain it.”

Kamran Haider, Ismail Dilawar and Kamran Hadir provided assistance

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