Imran Khan Faces a Standoff With the Pakistani Military

Imran Khan Faces a Standoff With the Pakistani Military

Imran Khan Faces a Standoff With the Pakistani Military

The prime minister has refused to sign off on the appointment of the military’s favored candidate for leadership of the country’s top intelligence agency.


Islamabad—Once again, in a repetition of the same pattern that has dogged Pakistani politics since the country’s inception, the military and civilian government have become embroiled in a tense and highly publicized tussle for power. Imran Khan—who became prime minister in an election allegedly rigged for him by the army—has refused to sign off on the appointment of Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum as the country’s top spymaster, apparently under the guidance of his mysterious wife, who has somehow convinced her husband that she has the gift of clairvoyance. As a result, Islamabad has become the setting of a constitutional crisis that has enervated the state and left crucial military departments without leadership and direction.

At the center of this conflict is Faiz Hameed, the outgoing current director general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who has been blamed in various quarters for rigging the 2018 election. Sources say that the prime minister, fearful of being voted out when the country goes to the polls in 2023, is adamant that Hameed should not be replaced, even though he has been posted to command a corps in Peshawar. According to journalist Absar Alam, this is because Khan does not believe he can win without the support of ISI, which is guaranteed for as long as Hameed remains in his post. “Everyone and his aunt in Pakistan knows that General Hameed is an insurance policy for Imran’s stay in power,” he tells The Nation. “If he goes, it would become difficult for Imran Khan to survive right now, forget about winning the next general election.”

In digging in his heels over this appointment, Khan has placed himself in direct conflict with Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the long-presiding chief of Pakistan’s army, who authorized the replacement of Hameed with Anjum. An erstwhile ally of Imran Khan, Bajwa now has to suffer the ignominy of being defied by a prime minister whom he not only helped install but also protected at great cost to the army’s reputation. Almost exactly a year ago, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif publicly accused Bajwa of using his position to interfere in Pakistani politics. “General Qamar Javed Bajwa, you packed up our government and put the nation at the altar of your wishes,” he said while addressing a rally of supporters. “You rejected the public’s choice in the elections and installed an inefficient and incompetent group of people.”

The victory of Imran Khan in the 2018 election was seen as a reassertion of the military’s influence. In the years following the collapse of the Musharraf dictatorship, the top brass of Pakistan’s military found itself sidelined from politics and running out of options. The two main parties—the PPP and the PML-N—both held long-standing grudges with the establishment and could no longer be trusted to do its bidding. Both had been deposed in military coups; both had had their leaders persecuted by the state; and, at various times in history, both had campaigned on anti-military platforms. It was in this environment that the army began to promote the candidacy of Khan, with whom it believed it could cultivate a different sort of relationship. According to Declan Walsh, who served as The New York Times’ bureau chief in Islamabad until he was suddenly expelled in 2013, “To have a prime minister who was willing to give them free rein on the big foreign policy issues, and who was willing to be complicit in their drive to silence the most critical parts of the press was really a dream come true for the military.”

But what the generals in Rawalpindi could not have foreseen was the economic turbulence that has accompanied Khan’s premiership. In the three years that have passed since Khan’s election, GDP growth has been slow, inflation has oscillated between 8 and 11 percent, and the rupee has lost 36 percent of its value against the dollar. The beleaguered public—approximately 40 percent of the country lives below the poverty line—has to contend with such a sharp increase in food and energy prices that it has now trained its ire not only on Khan but also on the generals who brought him to power. In the view of veteran analyst Murtaza Solangi, it is this context of economic instability that has resulted in the breakdown of civil-military relations. “I have a feeling that Imran knows that he has become a liability for his selectors,” he says. “If you talk to people, you will find out that most senior commanders in the military are of the view that this experiment [of bringing in Khan] hasn’t gone well and that it’s time for a rethink.”

Solangi also speculates that the decision of Khan to defy his military backers is a way of shifting the focus from his own incompetence. “I think he has tried to pick some battles to create a situation where he can claim to be a martyr for civilian supremacy,” he tells The Nation. If this turns out to be the case, it would make Khan the latest in a long line of Pakistani prime ministers who have turned against their military benefactors after coming into office. Political scientist Maleeha Lodhi, who served as Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, describes the current impasse as a tragicomic repeat of history. “Given Pakistan’s political history,” she says, “in some respects a power struggle is inherent in the relationship between the civilian authority and the military.”

For Walsh, however, it is unlikely that Khan is acting on his own. “My suspicion is that this is also a reflection that there are divisions within the military,” he tells The Nation. “It all speaks to the vociferous nature of politics in Pakistan that there are competing power centers and even when it looks like the whole thing has been stitched up and everything is being run from General Headquarters that there is more fluidity in the system.”

In any event, the public nature of this feud, now in its third week, means there is no scenario left in which both sides can save face. If, as is still widely expected, Khan ends up acceding to the army’s demands, he will give credence to the perception that he is a puppet prime minister. Conversely, if it is General Headquarters that retreats from its position, it will set a new paradigm for civil-military relations and shatter the military’s carefully cultivated aura of invincibility. In the opinion of Absar Alam, “The side which blinks first, whether it’s the chief of army staff or Imran Khan, would lose a lot of respect, not only with their own rank-and-file but also among the people.”

As of Thursday evening—despite unconfirmed reports of a meeting between Khan and Gen. Anjum—the impasse has still not been broken with an official announcement. Meanwhile, in Islamabad there are some who believe that it now no longer matters how this crisis is resolved. “Imran is toast.” says Murtaza Solangi, “Whether he bows to Bajwa or goes in open defiance is immaterial…It has been a very incompetent administration, and his scandals and the scandals of his government, when the lid is removed, will mean that he will not be able to show his face in public.”

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