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Why Imran Khan Can’t Outplay Pakistan’s Military

Imran Khan is a cornered tiger.

After surviving an assassination attempt on Nov. 3 while leading a protest march, Mr. Khan accused Shehbaz Sharif, who succeeded him as prime minister of Pakistan, Rana Sanaullah, the interior minister, and a third man of conspiring to assassinate him. In a significant breach in civil-military relations, Mr. Khan claimed that the third man was a major general in the Inter-Services Intelligence, the dreaded spy agency of Pakistan’s military, which supported his own rise to power.

The saga of Mr. Khan’s embrace of the military and his fallout and confrontation with the generals is a reminder of the limits of power exercised by civilian politicians in Pakistan, where the military has ruled directly for 33 years and always been the power behind the throne.

Mr. Khan took office as prime minister in August 2018 and was deposed by a no-confidence vote in Parliament in April of this year. Rakishly handsome, utterly vain and stubborn at 70, Mr. Khan hasn’t reconciled with his loss of power.

For several months now he has been discrediting the democratic process, blaming his ouster on an American-led foreign conspiracy and attacking Mr. Sharif’s government as an “imported government” full of “thieves.” He commenced on Oct. 28 an energetic roadshow across Pakistan demanding immediate national elections, which aren’t due for a year.

Mr. Khan’s own legend, the story of the cricket captain of steely determination who won his greatest sporting victory — the 1992 Cricket World Cup — with a team almost everybody wrote off, plays a big role in how he persists in politics. He had asked his team to play like a “cornered tiger,” and they ferociously fought their way to victory.

In politics, Mr. Khan’s legend and grit weren’t enough. He founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), or the P.T.I., in 1996 and spent a decade and a half charging quixotically at electoral windmills, barely managing to win a single seat in Pakistan’s 342-member National Assembly.

Many Pakistani analysts believe the military saw that Mr. Khan’s rise would be beneficial in reducing the dominance of the two major political parties, which revolved in and out of power: former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (inherited by her widower and her son after her death) and the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).

By the early 2010s, Mr. Khan aligned with Pakistan’s military and welcomed power brokers from older political parties into his. He reinvented himself into a populist rallying against corruption and misrule, promising a New Pakistan — a welfare state inspired by the early days of Islam. And he raged against American drone war in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, earlier known as the North-West Frontier Province, and the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

He emerged as a political force after the general elections of 2013. His party won the third largest number of seats, but Nawaz Sharif got the largest number of votes and formed the government. Three years later, in 2016, Nawaz Sharif — the older brother of the current prime minister — fell out with the military over national security policy and the military began to undermine him.

Since shortly after the birth of Pakistan in 1947, the generals have ensured the removal of intransigent politicians attempting to challenge the military either with a coup or with facilitating the election of obedient, chosen ones.

Mr. Khan played his role by ferociously accusing the older Mr. Sharif and his family of corruption and seeking his removal — not through elections but through judicial investigations and prosecution. After Mr. Sharif’s dismissal on corruption charges in 2017, a pliable judiciary disqualified him from holding public office and imprisoned him for hiding assets and not being “honest” despite no convincing evidence that he abused his office for personal gain.

In the 2018 elections, Mr. Khan’s party was seen as the military’s favorite. Independent press was gagged, and there were allegations of rigging and “copious evidence” that Pakistan’s military interfered to help Mr. Khan win. In his first three years in office, Mr. Khan spoke gleefully about being on the “same page” with the Pakistan Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and helped him with a second three-year term as the army chief.

Mr. Khan’s tenure was defined by a disregard for civil liberties and independent press, the hounding of his opponents and ignoring procedures of parliamentary democracy. He failed to improve the economy, inflation rose and the International Monetary Fund halted funding after his government refused to stick to its commitments.

His foreign policy didn’t fare any better. Pakistan’s most important relations, with the United States, Saudi Arabia and China, remained icy during his tenure. President Biden didn’t even make a customary phone call to Mr. Khan after the start of his term. Projects in the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor remained more or less stalled.

In February 2019, Mr. Khan welcomed the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman on his first visit outside the Middle East after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. In September 2019, Mr. Khan announced plans to team up with Malaysia and Turkey — Prince Mohammed’s nemesis after the Khashoggi murder — to set up a television network to counter Islamophobia and hold a summit of leaders of Muslim countries in Malaysia in December. The plans soured the relationship with Saudi Arabia, a major financial backer, forcing Mr. Khan to pull out.

Apart from his failures of governance, in October 2021, Mr. Khan committed the cardinal sin of interfering in the military’s personnel decisions. He sought to prevent the appointment of a new chief for the I.S.I., as Mr. Khan reportedly favored the continuation of the incumbent spy chief, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed.

The military establishment zealously guards its prerogative to promote and post officers at every level. General Bajwa replaced General Hameed with a new spy chief. Mr. Khan, who as prime minister appointed the spy chief in consultation with the army chief, showed his displeasure by taking three long weeks before notifying the appointment.

Pakistani press was gripped with feverish speculation that Mr. Khan wanted to appoint General Hameed as the army chief after General Bajwa’s upcoming retirement in late November 2022. Mr. Khan denied the rumors, but the damage was done. Mr. Khan and the army chief were not on the same page anymore. In March, in the lead-up to the vote of no confidence, a spokesman for General Bajwa publicly declared that the army has “nothing to do with politics.”

Pakistan got the message: Mr. Khan might still be prime minister, but he was not under the protective canopy of the army and the intelligence services anymore. The coalition of opposition parties moved to oust him and Mr. Khan lost crucial allies and legislators of his own party. A vote of no confidence was moved in the national assembly.

In April, Mr. Khan tried to avoid the confidence vote — which decides the fate of a government — by dissolving the national assembly, but the Supreme Court declared his actions unconstitutional and ordered the vote be held. Mr. Khan didn’t have a majority in parliament and was ousted.

Mr. Sharif, the leader of the opposition coalition, took over as prime minister and moved briskly to repair long fractured ties with the military. And in a first, after Mr. Khan’s ouster, his supporters — urban youth and sections of the middle class — who have traditionally been strong supporters of Pakistan’s military, clashed with the police, vandalized property and tried to forcibly enter a military cantonment area.

Mr. Khan has resumed his cry for immediate elections with the halo of a martyr. But he is quickly conceding that the military will always dominate Pakistan’s politics and told the newspaper The Dawn that “using their constructive power can get this country out of institutional collapse.”

He has also dialed back his allegations of an American conspiracy behind his ouster, waking up to the importance the military attaches to its relationship with Washington. The new tack suggests that he is happy with military interference in politics as long as it is on his behalf.

On Thursday Prime Minister Sharif appointed Lt. Gen Syed Asim Munir as the new army chief, who will take over after Gen. Bajwa retires on Tuesday. General Munir had clashed with Mr. Khan during his tenure as the I.S.I. chief in 2019.

Yet Mr. Khan’s populist messaging is gaining wider traction. Pakistan’s economy is faltering. Inflation is higher than 25 percent. Recent floods have affected more than 30 million people, and caused damage and economic losses of around $30 billion. Pakistan needs stability and improved governance, but Mr. Khan’s ambitions are bound to increase political turmoil.

Abbas Nasir is a columnist and former editor of the newspaper The Dawn in Pakistan.

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