Imran Khan assassination attempt could lead to Pakistan instability, experts say

Former prime minister accuses top political and military officials of complicity in Thursday night's attack

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The attack that wounded former prime minister Imran Khan, party members and officials on Thursday evening, could reshape Pakistan’s politics and lead to a dangerous escalation, experts say.

Mr Khan had an operation to remove bullet shards after the attack that left him with non-life-threatening wounds to his leg. The former prime minister, who was removed in April after a no-confidence vote in parliament, was on a march with supporters to the capital to demand elections.

The attack in Wazirabad, in Punjab province, killed one person and left at least 10 others wounded. The suspected shooter was arrested on the scene.

“The attack on Imran Khan could have a bad effect on the political sphere in Pakistan,” said Irfan Ashraf, assistant professor at Peshawar University, who has a background in security, terrorism and law and order.

He said that Mr Khan’s response had been to “burn all the boats and he has announced a fight against the [security agencies] that brought him into power”.

After the attack, Mr Khan accused Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and Maj Gen Faisal Naseer of being complicit and demanded they resign from their posts.

Mr Ashraf said that this would up the ante, rather than defuse tensions.

“Despite the fact that Imran Khan has been informed of such a [dangerous] situation and with the example of the former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, in front of us, he didn’t listen to anyone and has adopted a rash approach.”

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated after a political rally in 2007.

While Mr Khan is likely to adopt tighter security measures, Mr Ashraf said that the victims of political violence or clashes with authorities would be supporters and party members.

“The lives of the PTI workers are in danger,” he said, using the acronym for Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.

“We saw people coming out to the street destroying public properties and if people create any untoward situation, there is no one to take the responsibility then.”

Mohammad Riaz, president of the Peshawar Press Club and a veteran reporter, said that while prime ministers have been removed from office in the past, they usually bide their time for the next election to try to stage a comeback.

Mr Khan, he said, had changed the playbook by lobbying for elections, staging rallies and hurling accusations at foreign states for orchestrating his removal.

“After the alleged assassination [attempt against] Imran Khan, people came out, which is completely new and a new trend has been set and the effects of this will be visible later,” he said.

But Mehmood Jan Babar, a senior journalist in Peshawar who has covered security issues in north-west Pakistan for 24 years, was less worried about escalation and told The National that the PTI could seek to turn the situation in their favour.

“If they carry the same momentum and keep the workers motivated [like now], it will benefit the PTI in the long term,” he said, with a nod to possible elections being demanded by Mr Khan.

Mr Jan Babar pointed to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area, where the PTI has been in power for 10 years and where, after Thursday night’s incident, people took to the street in large numbers.

“If the incident is not investigated properly, it will definitely go in favour of the PTI,” he said.

Supporters of former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan block a main road a day after the assassination attempt. AFP

Mr Khan has been pushing for elections and the choice of the next army head, and Mr Jan Babar said that if he plays the situation well, he could come out stronger and more popular with both demands.

But he did note that the situation could easily escalate, as highlighted by videos shared online of various local and national PTI officials threatening federal ministers and carrying arms at protests since the attack.

A doctor at the hospital where Mr Khan is receiving treatment told The National that Mr Khan was hit in the leg and had a tibial spiral fracture. He underwent an operation to nail and plate the area and remove the bullet fragments.

The doctor said Mr Khan will need time to heal from the fracture and muscle damage.

Officials have not yet said what kind of gun was used in the attack, but a weapons expert from Peshawar told The National that online videos of the attack appeared to show an automatic weapon being fired.

Arshad Afridi said that while all weapons imported into Pakistan were semi-automatic, they can be made to fire in full auto setting with a simple modification.

“Many imported weapons can be manufactured locally [as well] in Peshawar’s Dara Adamkhel region. Imported semi-auto pistols cost around $1,500-$2,000, but you can get a locally made [version] for about $100-$200,” he said.

Updated: November 05, 2022, 4:26 AM
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