Clash of Titans
Ousted from power through what he claims was a conspiracy orchestrated by the then Pakistan army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, it’s but natural for one to sympathise with PTI chief and former Prime Minister Imran Khan for having been backstabbed in the most treacherous manner by an ambitious army chief pursuing a motivated agenda. Khan’s uncharitable comments regarding the professional conduct of former army chief also stokes outrage against Gen Bajwa and paints him as the devil incarnate driven solely by his self-serving interests.
However, the flip side is that Khan owed his premiership to Gen Bajwa’s deft manipulation. It’s no secret that Rawalpindi was instrumental in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s removal through a judicial ‘coup’ in the ‘Panama Gate’ scandal. It’s also evident that PTI victory in the subsequent elections was well the result of Pakistan army’s covert indulgence and that’s why Khan could never live down the moniker of being Pakistan’s ‘selected’ Prime Minister. This gives Khan’s unending vitriolic outbursts against his one-time benefactor the distinct flavour of ingratitude.
So, while there may be differing opinions on Gen Bajwa and Khan, the one thing certain is that both are guilty of making very serious errors of judgment.
When Rawalpindi Erred
Khan’s soft corner for terrorists threatening Pakistan was well known all along. In fact, detractors nicknamed him ‘Taliban Khan’ after he called Al Qaida founder and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden a martyr. In a piece carried by Al Jazeera, Ahsan Butt, an Associate Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, mentions that “[Imran] Khan was the avatar for a deeply sympathetic position towards the Taliban. Not for nothing did he earn the moniker “Taliban Khan”.”
Butt notes that “While the elected government and even the military favoured a more assertive approach, realising the mortal threat the TTP posed to Pakistan, Khan hemmed and hawed. He made excuses for the Taliban; they were only incensed by foreign occupation, he claimed and had no ideological agenda. The real problem, he thundered, was not the Taliban but the government itself.” [Emphasis added]. So, for Rawalpindi to still choose the PTI chief as its ‘selected’ prime minister was undoubtedly a grave mistake.
However, things don’t end here. Khan has also been a vocal critic of Pakistan army’s cavalier ways. In an undated video, he can be heard saying, “Our army [is] bombing people in Balochistan, how can we bomb our own people, is there any army [present there that] you are bombing? It is our own people with their children, but it is important to understand are we just bombing our people, just think about the immorality of bombing villages with the women and children.” [Emphasis added].
The PTI chief even called out Pakistan army’s pathetic human rights record by saying, “You are talking about six million people in the tribal areas that are being bombed, their economy has been destroyed, they are living in refugee camps, how are they surviving, and what about the extra-judicial killing that is going on?” [Emphasis added]. Not only this, Khan even lashed out at the Pakistan army for the horrendous atrocities that it committed on the hapless civilians of erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971.
Misreading Rawalpindi’s Overture
On his part, Khan made the cardinal mistake in forgetting that he was a mere puppet installed by the army to unquestioningly run Pakistan exactly in the way that Rawalpindi wanted. Being witness to the fate of his predecessors who dared to cross swords with the army and either ended up on the gallows, faced banishment or incarceration, the PTI chief should have realised that prime ministers of Pakistan serve purely at the pleasure of Rawalpindi. So, his decision to take on the army chief by trying to block the transfer of his own favoured DG ISI was a grievous self-inflicted injury for which he has no one else but himself to blame.
The second monumental mistake made by Khan was underestimating the army’s uncompromising resolve while defending its own supremacy. So, to have expected that Gen Bajwa’s successor Gen Asim Munir would overlook the PTI chief’s criticism of the Pakistan army was obviously a case of great expectations. Moreover, since Khan was instrumental in the brusque removal of Lt Gen Munir from his appointment as DG ISI in 2019 to make way for the PTI chief’s favourite Lt Gen Faiz Hameed as chief of Pakistan army’s spy agency, Khan should have known that Gen Munir had this score to settle with him.
Dawn’s recent news report stating that “The top brass of Pakistan’s military on Wednesday vowed to tighten the “noose of law” around “planners and masterminds who mounted a hate-ripened and politically-driven rebellion against the state and state institutions” clearly indicates that neither has Gen Munir forgotten his unceremonious removal as DG ISI, and nor is he willing to forgive Khan. And needless to say, Rawalpindi, which the PTI sarcastically refers to as the ‘establishment’ had with military precision, already drawn out its plans for defanging Khan .
The ‘Establishment’ Strikes Back
The army’s first move was to set an elaborate trap with the aim of demonising PTI and simultaneously portraying itself as a virtuous ‘victim’ that displayed exemplary restraint by not using force against the marauding mobs who ransacked military assets. Readers would have observed that while there are videos galore showing protesters attacking and destroying military facilities, the absence of soldiers at the sites being attacked raises an obvious question-did the soldiers on duty just abandon their posts when confronted by the mobs on May 9, or were they ordered to do so to allow protesters a free-for-all?
In a bid to solicit public support by appealing to their sentiments, Rawalpindi declared that “May 9 will be a black day and dark chapter in the country’s history.” The Pakistan army convened a “special corps commanders’ conference” in which it was decided that “those involved in these heinous crimes against the military installations and personal/equipment will be brought to justice through trials under relevant laws of Pakistan, including Pakistan Army Act and Official Secret Act.”
That the extraordinary decision to try civilian protesters under Army Act was taken by the army without reference to the legislature or judiciary may scandalise the uninitiated but not those aware of Pakistan army’s absolute supremacy and domination over the legislature and judiciary.
Lastly, with Dawn reporting that Gen Munir and his cabal had decided that “it is time that noose of law is also tightened around the planners and masterminds who mounted the hate ripened and politically driven rebellion against the state and state institutions to achieve their nefarious design of creating chaos in the country,” [Emphasis added], little is left to imagination. It’s clear that this excellently worded statement invoking lofty ideals is nothing but an excuse to target and ‘neutralise’ the PTI chief by throwing the book at him.
It’s thus abundantly clear that the highly provocative act of using Rangers [a para-military force led by army officers] for arresting Khan when he was already appearing before Islamabad High Court in connection with hearing of another case was part of Rawalpindi’s plan to instigate PTI supporters into targeting military assets. And by quietly withdrawing security details guarding military installations and official residence of senior officers, Rawalpindi not only allowed unhindered access into the otherwise well-fortified cantonments and military facilities therein, but also gave protesters an opportunity to run riot.
By raising several valid questions regarding Pakistan army’s extra constitutional powers, Khan has severely dented Pakistan army’s ‘Holy Cow’ image and as such is perceived by the military leadership as a high level threat to its dominance. Hence, it appears that Rawalpindi has decided to remedy the damage caused by its wrong selection of Khan as prime minister and is determined that come what may, the PTI chief’s political career has to be terminated, and action in this regard has already commenced.
Adept in using the carrot and stick, Rawalpindi has been able to not only devise resignations of several senior PTI leaders but also stage managed creation of a new political party by these ‘conscious stricken’ politicians who apparently worship the army. The sudden spike in brazen abductions of media persons too raises strong suspicions that Rawalpindi is once again terrorising media to curb it from broadcasting or publishing news reports that are critical of the army.
Rawalpindi realised in good time that it needed to stop giving any further long rope to Khan. Unfortunately, the PTI chief became too cocksure and declared an all-out ‘war’ against the army and is now trapped between the devil and deep sea. Offering to resolve the political deadlock, a hitherto unyielding Khan is now desperately seeking talks with Gen Munir and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, but both don’t want to do so. Could this development be an indication that the Sharif-Gen Munir duo is confident that their strategy of using military courts and the Army/ Official Secret Acts to permanently terminate Khan’s political career will succeed?
In 2017, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan [TLP], a far-right Islamic extremist political party blocked the main routes into Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad. This gruelling 20 day long blockade [commonly referred to as the Faizabad sit-in] ended after an agreement was reached between the government and TLP. The Pakistan army’s role in this crisis was indeed appalling-instead of taking action to uphold government writ, Rawalpindi meekly surrendered to the protesters.
Director-General of Punjab Rangers Maj-Gen Azhar Navid Hayat was caught on camera not only dishing out cash in envelopes to TLP protesters but could be clearly heard making unsoldierly statements like, “Aren’t we with you too?” and “God willing, we’ll get all of them [arrested protesters] released.” [Emphasis added].But the most shameful part was that in this official agreement between the government and TLP, a two star General of ISI acted as the ‘guarantor’ and endorsed his signatures on it in this capacity!
Isn’t it strange the same army that had pandered to the whims and fancy of a far-right Islamic extremist political party in 2017, now wants to try Pakistan’s former prime minister under the Army Act? But who dares question Rawalpindi!
It could well be possible that Khan may have reckoned that just like in the case of the Faizabad sit-in, Rawalpindi would broker an agreement between the government and PTI. While his expectations weren’t entirely misplaced, what the PTI chief failed to appreciate is the fact that unlike PTI which is now considered an ‘enemy’ by Rawalpindi, TLP is the army’s proxy and was used to generate public animosity against the PML [N] government and thereby pave the way for Imran Khan’s elevation to the post of Pakistan’s ‘selected’ prime minister.