Imran Khan versus Others: A fixed match?

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arrest of imran khan
Supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan and riot police scuffle outside Khan's house to prevent officers from arresting him in Lahore (Photo: Arif Ali/ AFP)

The arrest of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has triggered an unprecedented public backlash with his supporters running riot destroying public property as well as attacking military installations and houses of senior army officers. Though the Supreme Court of Pakistan has paved the way for Khan’s release by ruling that his arrest is illegal, things are far from over; au contraire, battle lines have only hardened and could well be the beginning of fight to the finish between Khan and the legislature-military combine.

Absolving Rawalpindi

With former Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa announcing that the Army’s “institutional resolve to remain apolitical will remain steadfast”, one had expected Rawalpindi to walk Gen Bajwa’s talk. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case since Khan has consistently accused the Army of not only sabotaging his party’s political activities but even orchestrating his assassination. So, suspicions that this move was the result of Rawalpindi’s behind-the-scenes manipulations was but natural.

However, in its news report on Imran Khan’s arrest by the National Accountability Bureau [NAB], Geo News has stated that “government sources have confirmed that the country’s military forces have nothing to do with the arrest of the political leader.” While there may well be no ulterior motive on Rawalpindi’s part on this issue, but considering the timing and unusual manner in which the former Pakistani prime minister was arrested, serious suspicions to the contrary do arise.

ISPR’s Overreaction 

For one, Khan’s arrest came just a day after Pakistan Army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] issued a strongly worded statement dismissing the PTI chief’s allegation that a two star General serving in Pakistan Army’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] was devising his assassination. Rawalpindi’s angst is understandable and dismissing Khan’s allegation for being “highly irresponsible and baseless” would have been a good enough rebuttal.

However, ISPR went overboard by going into a verbal overdrive. Mentioning that “This has been a consistent pattern for last one year wherein military and intelligence agencies officials are targeted with insinuations and sensational propaganda for the furtherance of political objectives,” it went on to issue a veiled threat by saying “The institution [army] reserves the right to take legal course of action against patently false and malafide statements and propaganda.” 

Crafting an Elaborate Trap

The next issue that raises red flags is the manner in which Khan was arrested. The PTI chief was undergoing a biometric process within Islamabad High Court [IHC] premises in connection with hearing of a corruption case when Pakistan Rangers entered after breaking open a glass window and took him into custody on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by National Accountability Bureau [NAB].

Since Pakistan Rangers is commanded by Pakistan Army officers and operates under the command of Pakistan Army, it’s uncouth behaviour in the court premises obviously raises suspicions of Army involvement.

NAB Judge Zafar Iqbal’s justification that non-inclusion of bail provision in Khan’s arrest warrant was because the PTI chief had failed to appear in court despite repeated summons is reasonable. However, Khan’s lawyer has claimed that he had already informed the NAB court that the PTI chief couldn’t be present on the due date since he was to appear for a hearing in IHC, and had requested for an extension. Under these circumstances, the NAB’s direction to execute Khan’s arrest warrant has only further muddied the already murky waters.

By pouncing upon Khan and literally ‘abducting’ him while he was in the process of appearing before another court is downright revolting, and seriously raises doubts regarding the NAB’s sincerity and impartiality while dispensing justice in Khan’s case.  And while on the issue of NAB’s credentials, the focus automatically shifts to the NAB chairman retired Lt Gen Nazir Ahmad Butt.

According to Maj Adil Raja, a former Pakistan Army officer living in self-imposed exile in the UK, Pakistan Army Chief Gen Asim Munir had served under NAB chairman Lt Gen Butt in the same unit and hence both are extremely close to each other. Interestingly, Lt Gen Butt was selected as NAB chairman just two months ago, and it’s rumoured that Gen Munir’s proximity with his erstwhile commanding officer had tipped the scales in Lt Gen Butt’s favour.

But things don’t end here.

Gen Munir too is believed to have been selected as the Army chief by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif since he bears a personal grudge against Khan. Readers would recall that in 2019, Lt Gen Munir who had just completed eight months as Director General ISI was unceremoniously removed from this prestigious post by Khan to make way for the PTI chief’s close confidante Lt Gen Faiz Hameed.

Since Gen Munir was due to retire two days before superannuation of the then Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, his being promoted as Army chief was virtually ruled out. But with Pakistani President Arif Alvi’s approval of Lt Gen Asim Munir as new Army chief just two days before his retirement, Sharif got a Khan-baiter to occupy Pakistan’s most powerful chair!

These patently motivated developments gave rise to suspicions regarding the existence of an anti-Khan troika comprising Sharif, Gen Munir and retired Lt Gen Butt, the highly questionable manner in which Khan has been hounded only buttresses this apprehension.

Lastly, use of Pakistan Rangers instead of the local police to arrest the PTI chief makes the entire episode all the more quirky. While Rangers serve as a law enforcement force, it is used on occasions where major use of force is anticipated, and so its employment for arresting Khan, and that too by breaking into IHC was definitely ‘overkill’!

Why Imran?

Whereas some may dismiss it, but there’s a distinct possibility that Pakistan’s legislature and military has ganged-up against the PTI chief, and the reasons are not too hard to find. It’s no secret that Khan’s stupendous popularity amongst the masses is a credible threat to the PDM government and the widespread violent protests against his arrest validate this apprehension. So, Khan is obviously a serious political threat in being to the ruling dispensation that can only be countered by his disqualification or political emasculation though trumped up corruption charges.

For Rawalpindi, Khan is a protégé turned rogue. ‘Selected’ by Gen Bajwa and his coterie to serve as its obedient minion, Khan turned the tables on Pakistan Army by his assertiveness, and questioning Pakistan’s all-powerful military became the proverbial last straw that broke Rawalpindi’s back.

Khan’s incessant diatribe against the army has greatly diminished Rawalpindi’s ‘Holy Cow’ image and military installations and houses of senior Army officers being ransacked by irate mobs clearly indicate his remarkable ability to change the age-old and stereotype public perceptions of the country’s armed forces. The targeting of military installations and residence of Generals by his supporters clearly indicate that his claims of the Army trying to suppress PTI and ISI attempting to assassinate him have found traction amongst the masses.

For an Army determined to preserve its turf against all odds, Khan is a serious threat that needs to be neutralised. Consequently, Rawalpindi has no other option but to prevent the PTI chief from spewing vitriol against the Army and to achieve this, it can go to any extent. So, though macabre and outlandish, the possibility of the Army taking over the country, forcing Khan into exile or even silencing him for good cannot be completely ruled out.

International Impact

While Khan may be quite popular at home, he unfortunately hasn’t been able to endear himself to the international community. Au contraire, by his anti-US rhetoric and assertive stance while dealing with Beijing on CPEC related issues, both these countries would be definitely more comfortable if Khan is out of the scene. So, there are bright chances that Washington and Beijing may tacitly approve discreet political or military maneuvering that keeps Khan away from power!

Prognosis

Given the incalculable imponderables that influence Pakistani politics, to accurately predict the shape of things to come is well-nigh impossible. However, with Rawalpindi showing no signs of manipulating the various state organs, it would be safe to assume that Pakistan is unlikely to witness any path-breaking development.

Rawalpindi knows very well that the masses can easily be swayed by hyper-nationalistic appeals and, so, the threat of its marginalisation can effectively be offset by suggesting that the recent targeting of military assets were not due to public anger but engineered by India through its spy agency RAW. And this has already started!

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