Apocalyptic floods have put a third of Pakistan underwater, inflation is at its highest in five decades, there are concerns over the Taliban resurfacing in parts of the tribal areas, but the national discourse continues to focus on one person: Imran Khan.
In April, Khan became the first prime minister in the country’s history to be ousted from power after losing a no-confidence vote, continuing the streak of elected leaders failing to complete their five-year tenures. He accused the military — which has ruled Pakistan for almost half of its 75 years — of plotting his downfall in tandem with the United States. At rallies held across the country, protesters chanted slogans in support of Khan and against the army. One popular slogan, “Anyone who is friends with America is a traitor” (“Amreeka ka jo yaar hai ghaddaar hai”), alludes to Khan’s claims of U.S. involvement in his ouster.
Since then, public discourse has been abuzz, both online and offline. In the past, anti-army sentiments were only expressed by a minority that had to act discreetly, whereas today the protests are highly visible. Even as accounts are suspended and arrests are made of those accused of orchestrating anti-army campaigns online, people continue to voice their disdain toward the military leadership. As the army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, landed in the U.S. last month, new hashtags such as #BajwaHasToGo and #BajwaTraitor trended on social media, accusing the general of executing American orders in Pakistan.
While the traditional tactics of shutting down TV channels and targeting politicians with spurious legal cases continue, not all military critics can be intimidated.
In August, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) sent a notice to the ARY News television channel in connection with comments it broadcasted by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) politician Shahbaz Gill, who had said on air that senior army officers should ignore their military leaders if told to do anything against the interests of the people. These comments were said by PEMRA to have been “tantamount to inciting the rank and file of armed forces towards revolt.” Gill was later detained in Islamabad, in what Khan described on social media as an abduction. Pakistan’s interior minister Rana Sanaullah later confirmed Gill was arrested on charges of sedition and abetting mutiny. PEMRA also imposed fines on six national TV channels for airing a controversial statement by Khan regarding the appointment of the next army chief.
ARY News’ senior anchor, Arshad Sharif, who had interviewed Gill, was also charged with sedition for peddling an anti-state narrative, prompting him to flee the country. On Oct. 23, Sharif was shot dead by local police in Kenya’s Kajiado town. While Kenyan police claimed the killing was a case of mistaken identity, many in both countries questioned conflicting reports over the senior journalist’s death, with some activists suggesting it was a hit job. The incident further fueled the growing anti-army sentiment in Pakistan.
Last week, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, the chief of the Inter-Services Agency (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency, spoke to the media at a press conference to address Sharif’s killing as well as Khan’s confrontational narrative against the military. Sitting alongside the military spokesperson Lt. Gen. Babar Iftikhar and visibly agitated, spymaster Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum insisted the army and security agencies were not traitors.
“A few years ago, when people were abducted or targeted [for dissent], no one used to find out. Now … despite restrictive state policies, [the message] cannot be completely silenced,” said Mohsin Dawar, chair of the National Democratic Movement (NDM) and a parliamentarian from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). “The army has been involved in Pakistani politics from day one and has always had its critics. But with social media there is a platform that cannot be completely controlled,” Dawar told New Lines.
It all started when the army chief Bajwa openly condemned Russia while Khan was in Moscow the day Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. Coming at a time when Khan was facing a vote of no-confidence, Bajwa’s statement indicated the military and Khan’s PTI-led government were no longer in lockstep and the dissolution of the government was imminent.
Khan’s Moscow visit was deemed contentious in diplomatic circles because there was little to gain from Russia and much to lose from the inevitable backlash from the West, which was already unhappy with Pakistan’s indecisiveness vis-a-vis Russia. However, much like his economic policies in the lead-up to his ouster, Khan’s diplomacy at the time hinged on whether he could later sell it electorally. In this case, Khan capitalized on the fallout with the army, arguing the U.S. had been plotting against him and claiming he was fighting for an independent foreign policy for Pakistan.
In an apparent blow to Khan getting the upper hand, an audio leak of him and a senior party member discussing plans to use the U.S. conspiracy narrative recently surfaced on social media. Khan later said the leaked conversation, which took place in the prime minister’s house, was a “breach of national security” and posed a threat to the nation. The PTI also filed a petition at the Supreme Court seeking a judicial investigation.
It was the machinations of the same military establishment that first catapulted Khan to power in 2018, by a combination of election-day rigging with pre-poll engineering of electables in favor of PTI. The cricket-star-turned-politician, who founded the PTI in 1996 after leading Pakistan to triumph in the 1992 World Cup, was seen by the military leadership as a more viable alternative to the two largest national parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which were set for a two-horse race following the abdication of the last military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in 2008. Both the PPP and PML-N took turns forming governments until 2018 and had to deal with the disqualification of their prime ministerial candidates, Yusuf Raza Gilani and Nawaz Sharif, following contentious orders from the Supreme Court.
Khan, who was cheerleading for Sharif’s exit — and had participated in a 126-day sit-in in the capital city of Islamabad — was recently disqualified by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) from contesting elections for the next five years. The Islamabad High Court will now review the verdict. In August, the ECP ruled that the PTI had received illegal funding, while Khan was charged with terrorism offences over threats he issued to the police and judiciary officials in Islamabad. An arrest warrant was issued for Khan last month. The case is still pending in court.
As high-profile verdicts continue to align with the wishes of the military establishment, Khan’s ongoing tussle with the army could see him banned from politics, just like his rivals before him. While Khan’s fate would appear to fit the pattern of military selections churned in and out of power — of which the PTI chief was not only cognizant but also once a staunch critic — there is a tangible difference in the magnitude of aftershocks since the latest political upheaval.
According to U.S. cables leaked over a decade ago, after Gen. Musharraf’s regime, the army did a volte-face on military coups and chose instead to deal with matters behind the scenes. This was likely pushed by a change in policy in the West, spearheaded by Washington, to no longer deal overtly with military dictators. Hence, for the last 14 years, even though Pakistan votes for a government, the army has had complete control over the country’s diplomatic relations and security affairs, not to mention a sizable chunk of the national budget.
It was Sharif’s attempts to assert civilian rule over these domains that led to his ouster, according to his party leadership and critics of the military establishment. Khan, who claimed to be on the same page as the military for much of his tenure, attempted to stretch the limits of his power by appointing the intelligence chief on his own — in accordance with the constitution — instead of the one recommended by Bajwa. Khan disrupted things further when he declared at a rally in September that the elections were being postponed to correspond with the appointment of Bajwa’s successor in November, prompting strong condemnation from the military spokesperson. While Sharif’s premature exit led him to confront the military leadership at political rallies and popularized the slogan “give the vote the respect” (“vote ko izzat do”) ahead of the 2018 polls, it is Khan’s departure that has seen anti-army sentiments explode across the country.
Before aligning himself with the military establishment, Khan had been a staunch critic of the army’s subservience to the U.S., accusing it of being a mercenary force that “takes American money to kill its own people.” This sentiment was also reflected in another popular slogan chanted against the army at PTI rallies: “It is the uniform behind all the terrorism” (“Yeh jo dehshatgardi hai is ke peechay wardi hai”). The nationwide eruption of anti-army sentiment has overlapped with the resurgence of the Pakistani Taliban in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province bordering Afghanistan, with the military sustaining jihadist groups as its strategic assets on both sides of the Durand Line — the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Many rights groups and organizations have been critical of the military’s long-standing “good Taliban, bad Taliban” policy, which has directly contributed to the surge in jihadist violence in Pakistan, killing over 80,000 citizens over the past two decades. Among the most prominent voices against the military’s policies has been the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which started as a rights group in 2018 for the Pashtun-majority tribal areas but has evolved into a symbol of nationwide struggle for democracy and constitutional supremacy. In recent months, the PTM and other critics of the military’s maneuvers near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have pointed out how the 2018 merger of the FATA with KP has had little impact and the state has preserved the lawlessness of the region by facilitating policymaking that supports the jihadist groups. While the PTI leadership has amplified PML-N’s political narrative of civilian supremacy, Khan’s party has also mainstreamed PTM’s rallying cry against the military-orchestrated state abuses.
“When you see what is going on in the tribal areas, the continued violence and human rights crises, it is natural that people around Pakistan are now standing up against the undemocratic policies and state atrocities,” Lateef Wazir, a PTM worker based in Jani Khel town of KP’s Bannu district, told New Lines. “But you also have to keep in mind that not everyone faces similar consequences for taking a stand. [PTM co-founder] Ali Wazir is still in jail merely for demanding constitutional rights of the people,” Lateef added. A member of the National Assembly from South Waziristan, Ali, who is not related to Lateef, has been in jail since December 2020 for “defaming state institutions.” Prior to his arrest, Ali not only faced a blanket ban in the media but was also censored in the Parliament, where he is an elected representative.
Many, including NDM chief Dawar and PTM’s Lateef, believe the PTI’s role in this turnaround for the military leadership is largely opportunistic, with Khan’s critics arguing he would be happy to abandon his anti-establishment position should the army choose to side with him again. Since anti-army sentiments have become national discourse, they are unlikely to be abandoned within society purely on the basis of political affiliations.
Apart from deciding masochistic diplomatic and security policies, the army’s role in Pakistan’s multipronged economic crises has also become a subject of public debate. In June, widespread condemnation of the hike in Pakistan’s defense budget — 17.5% of the national budget — prompted the military spokesperson to issue a clarification claiming the share had actually declined if one factored in inflation and rupee depreciation. Yet many now pin the declining economy and slowdown in development stemming from the flood devastation on the army, for meddling in politics to maintain its power.
“When you constantly breach constitutional boundaries for your own interests, you cannot get away with it forever. It is in the army’s institutional interest to stop interfering in the democratic process,” Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, former secretary at the Ministry of Defense Production, told New Lines. “The latest political turmoil has also resulted in backlash from within the army, with many supporting Khan and hence not in favor of his removal. This needs to be addressed to ensure the army’s integrity going forward, regardless of who is at the helm of the institution,” he added.
Despite the growing anti-military sentiment in the country, the question remains whether popular support for Khan and a greater awareness of the army’s role in political upheavals will actually translate into Pakistan flourishing as a fully-functioning democracy. This could perhaps happen if the civilian leadership were to abandon the game of political musical chairs, whereby they take turns to substantiate military control. For instance, the current government is spearheaded by PML-N and PPP, two parties that have long been victims of military machinations through full-fledged coups and behind-the-scenes interference.
“[The military] are no longer interfering in politics and have reiterated as much as well,” Chaudhry Manzoor Ahmad, general secretary of PPP’s Punjab chapter, told New Lines. “Imran Khan isn’t upset because they are targeting him, he is upset that they are no longer supporting him and are now, in fact, neutral in national politics,” he added.
While the military continues to claim it is apolitical, the claims of its neutrality have prompted Khan and the PTI to popularize “neutrals” as a new euphemism to mock the army, likening it to an “extraterrestrial species” (“khalai makhlooq”), popularized by Sharif, and “selectors,” often used by PPP chair Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. (A selector is someone who chooses a sports team; in this context, Bhutto uses it to describe the army’s involvement in civilian politics.) Yet civilian leaders haven’t united to uphold democratic rule and the Parliament’s supremacy in the country. “Whoever is in power says democracy has been saved, and whoever is not says there isn’t true democracy, whether it’s Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan,” political scientist Hasan Askari Rizvi, author of “The Military and Politics in Pakistan: 1947-1997,” told New Lines.
Many among the ruling coalition believe Khan deserves his ouster and disqualification, not only because his government oversaw a similar crackdown against its opposition but also because the PTI has undermined democratic institutions on a number of occasions. Khan’s critics believe he will jeopardize Pakistan’s political stability if it means a chance to seize power. Provincial governments, led by the PTI, have refused to align with the center to resume the International Monetary Fund’s bailout program. In a country where democratic norms have been quashed for over seven decades, these absolutist tendencies only add to Khan’s popularity, even if the military leadership might wish to believe otherwise. Accordingly, should the upcoming elections be free and fair, many believe Khan’s return to power with a much stronger mandate might be inevitable.
The PTI’s victory in the by-elections in Punjab in July, as well as across three other provinces last month, suggests the military’s bid to shuffle electables may not work as well as it did in the past. A majority of people appear to be rallying behind Khan rather than behind locally-influential political figures. “You can’t do election-day rigging at the same scale either, given how it’s difficult to hide such things these days because of social media,” said Rizvi.
As the court reprieved PML-N leaders like Maryam Nawaz (Sharif’s daughter) and the incoming finance minister Ishaq Dar over their corruption cases, a judicial ouster for Khan and allowance for Sharif’s return to Pakistan are said to be the military’s best bet to maintain its stranglehold over politics. Until there is consensus between political parties to put an end to the de facto military rule in the country, public outrage over Khan’s elimination and the push for the army to vacate its political space are expected to continue.