When Pakistanis look back, 2022 may not be remembered as a good year for the country. The displacement and destruction from flooding caused by our planetary climate emergency has immiserated millions, compounded by the economic shocks from the Ukraine war. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban is back with its bombs and threats, and this time enjoying the tacit support of an Afghan Taliban that is finally in power in Kabul. All of this of course came on the back of the stresses of the Covid-19 pandemic.
These extraordinary circumstances help to explain why the national atmosphere – intensified by the saturation of social media and cable TV – has been so influenced by Imran Khan’s portrayal of his split with the “establishment” (namely, the army and senior judiciary) as an unprecedented, life-and-death struggle.
The former prime minister, who lost power mere months ago after political manoeuvring to cast him out, has continued the brand of fiery populism that characterised his tenure – this time as the political opposition. His rallies have drawn huge crowds and fuelled conspiratorial thinking among his supporters, many of whom believe he was deposed in a foreign-backed “coup”.
But in reality, both Mr Khan and the establishment have enough of a sense of self-preservation to continue to pull their punches, despite the overheated rhetoric, suggesting they remain open to finding a way to end the open feuding.
It is worth remembering that in the 1980s, before Mr Khan’s time in politics, he led Pakistan’s national cricket team while the country was under the authoritarian rule of Gen Zia ul Haq. It was a time when cricket was carefully employed to normalise an often deeply unpopular leadership.
After many years of reliable service as the celebrity face of such efforts, Mr Khan retired from sport and was ushered into Pakistan’s increasingly democratic political system by Lt Gen Hamid Gul, Gen Zia’s military spymaster. Lt Gen Gul stated on the record that Mr Khan’s value was a “third force” that could disrupt the emerging consensus among the country’s two biggest political parties to take on the military’s political influence rather than fighting each other. Mr Khan has yet to show any regret for having played this role, or any indication that he would reject it in the future.
When Mr Khan was in office, his main political challenge was over who would be appointed as the next Chief of Army Staff, as the incumbent, Gen Qamar Bajwa, approached his mandated retirement (which is, incidentally, scheduled for next week). Although the constitution mandates that the prime minister selects the army chief, historically this has been more of a formality. And it is the army chief who has tended to have a say over the political fortunes of the prime minister rather than the other way round.
Mr Khan’s close personal relationship with his preferred candidate, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, appeared to have been heading towards a situation where the two might have propped up each other in power indefinitely. The entire thrust of the establishment’s actions against Mr Khan (from supporting the parliamentary no-confidence motion that brought down his government, to the Election Commission's imposition of a five-year ban on him running for office) has been designed to ensure that he could not influence this transition in military leadership.
Mr Khan has gone to some lengths to try to characterise his conflict as a personal one with Gen Bajwa and a handful of generals around him, rather than with the army establishment as a whole. It is entirely possible that he even sincerely believes this. But this personalised narrative is not only factually incorrect, it reflects a corrosive misunderstanding of how the army works that has tripped up most civilian Pakistani leaders, even initially pro-military ones: Pakistan’s army may influence politics, but it has tried to minimise the role of politics in appointments to its command structure, having seen the damaging effects of such quid-pro-quo both on its morale and the quality of military leadership.
Gen Bajwa, despite having won, is not showing any intention of remaining in his post or seeking political office. Rather, he is using his political capital to ensure that the new government selects an acceptable replacement. This should not be mistaken solely for altruism; he knows that Pakistan’s army is institutionally hostile to its officers putting their own ambitions first, and that his colleagues could turn against him if he were to prioritise his political career over professional and institutional considerations.
The establishment is clearly not yet willing to write off any chance of political co-existence with Mr Khan. And for his part Mr Khan has also shown some restraint. For example, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party that he leads has not used its clout to paralyse Karachi, home to the country’s most important ports and industrial areas. Karachi contributes 20 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP and 50 per cent of government revenue, so strikes and road closures there have far more impact on people’s everyday lives than similar actions in the sparsely populated political capital of Islamabad. Nor has Mr Khan attempted yet to use his influence among junior and mid-level officers to encourage mutiny or disobedience.
In short, the PTI’s revolt, although deeply polarising within particular segments of Pakistani society, remains more theatrical than actual, for now. Its leadership, like that of the establishment, has lived through enough of Pakistan’s history to understand the enormous risks of actually waging the kind of total political warfare that they talk about every day in rallies and television studios. But it is safe to say that Mr Khan’s breach with the establishment is unlikely to ever be fully healed. What Mr Khan, the PTI and its supporters will do once that truth sinks in remains to be seen. In an ideal scenario, Mr Khan would recognise the need to make common cause with his civilian political opponents, and support the vital institutions of electoral politics – Parliament, the press and the constitution. But it is impossible to say when, or even if this will happen.
In the meanwhile, a badly battered Pakistani public can perhaps best serve itself by shaking free of this all-absorbing distraction. By focusing on the underlying issues, whether climate change, food and energy security, social safety nets or economic stability, there is an opportunity to not only get things done but to persuade politicians to try to jump on the bandwagon. These challenges are both vast and urgent, and ultimately the public must rely on itself rather than on messianic saviours or men in uniform to overcome them.