© THE INTERCEPT
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Journalist and human rights advocate Omar Waraich breaks down the political and economic crisis unfolding in Pakistan.
For the past few weeks, former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has been at the center of an unprecedented political crisis. In the lead-up to new elections, Khan was arrested and released on corruption charges intended to keep him out of his office. Meanwhile, his supporters have been facing off against the military, as the armed forces crack down on his political party in a campaign aimed at excluding them from political life. The conflict drives at the heart of the most important issue in Pakistani politics: the reality of military rule. This week on Intercepted, Jeremy Scahill and Murtaza Hussain are joined by Omar Waraich — a journalist, human rights advocate, and former head of South Asia for Amnesty International. Waraich provides the historical context, explains the Pakistani military’s role in the country, and where U.S. relations with Pakistan stand.
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Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Murtaza Hussain: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.
Pakistan is the world’s fifth largest country by population, and one of a small number of countries in the world armed with nuclear weapons. Today, while the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine, this country stands on the brink of a political crisis unlike any it has seen in the past five decades.
Supporters of Pakistan’s populist former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, are today being arrested, tortured, and disappeared en masse by the Pakistani military, long the secret power behind the throne of the nation’s politics.
CNN: As you see from the footage, they came out in droves and then grabbed Imran Khan, put him in a car, and have driven him off to the National Accountability Bureau.
AlJazeera: Anger against the arrest of Imran Khan has turned into violent confrontations with security forces. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party says several people have been killed and hundreds wounded.
Channel 4 News: Arriving at court amidst tight security and a charged atmosphere. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, faces dozens of legal cases, but dismisses them as politically motivated.
MH: Pakistan today stands at the precipice of political conflict that could rock the entire region and, potentially, the world.
We’re now joined by Omar Waraich. Omar is a journalist and human rights advocate. He’s a former head of South Asia for Amnesty International, and has written on the region for publications, including Time Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Foreign Policy.
Thanks for joining us, Omar.
Omar Waraich: Thank you Murtaza, and a pleasure to be here.
MH: Omar, before we jump into the current situation with Imran Khan in Pakistan, can you give us a brief primer on the political system in Pakistan and, very specifically, the very unique relationship between the military and the civilian leadership in the country?
OW: So, there is a bit of a cliché about Pakistan, which is taken from Prussia, which is to say, most countries have an army; in the case of Pakistan, an army has a country. That’s crudely put, but it captures a lot of it, which is, the Pakistan military has, at various points in the country’s 75 years, ruled directly for three decades, and then let very weak attenuated forms of democracy run while they still hold onto the crucial levers of power, particularly the economy, national security, foreign policy.
And, over that time, no civilian Prime Minister has ever been reelected and, in many cases, not being able to complete a full five-year term. The military has intervened at each stage to push them out of power, through either direct means or indirect, and this has been the fate of Imran Khan since April last year, when he was ousted.
MH: One thing, spending a lot of time in Pakistan, you noticed a very unequal society. There’s a lot of, in some sectors, a lot of development and a lot of wealth. And there’s nuclear weapons at the same time coexisting with a very, very underdeveloped state, high degrees of illiteracy, a lack of basic services. This sort of weird situation where we have an army which determines the prerogative of the state.
How has that affected Pakistan negatively and brought it to this very negative state? And today, where the economy is terrible, there’s flooding, poor infrastructure, degradation of natural environment – how has that unique sort of relationship created this dysfunctional country we see at the moment?
OW: It’s a very good question, Maz. Pakistan’s economy has, as a result, developed in the way that you would for a security state that is deeply paranoid, that faces much larger neighbors that it perceives as its mortal enemies, rather than concentrating on the development and the welfare of its very, very large population.
Pakistan’s population is getting close to 250 million; it is the fifth-largest population on Earth. At the same time, you have what is the fifth- or sixth-largest army on earth as well. And that situation creates trade-offs, where the incentives that the economy creates are more towards trying to — It started off with being able to fight India, and now moved to a position where they’d like to counter an Indian threat on its eastern border.
And then it’s been about trying to secure its Western border with Afghanistan and, more recently, at least since about 2007, about dealing with a domestic threat. What that then means is that you haven’t had economic distribution, you haven’t had basic welfare. You have 25 million kids in Pakistan who don’t go to school, of school age, for example.
In terms of the human development index, Pakistan is all the way down at 150 or so. And you have, Maz, as you mentioned, some very, very wealthy people, but their economic structures are also parasitic, as it were. This is an elite that’s captured the state. There’s not an elite that produces, and exports a lot, and brings money into the country.
These are people who live off favorable contracts, monopolistic control of elements of the economy, and things like that. And it’s created, actually, a very, very dangerous situation, where Pakistan is now faced with a series of existential crises, which include its economy, which include the ravages of climate change, which include the prospects for this overwhelmingly young population, which is still growing rapidly.
Pakistan is going to hit 300 million, 350 million over the course of this century as well, but they don’t have the means to give that population skills, jobs. And it’s created a very, very dangerous situation, where these contradictions are now coming to a head.
JS: You know, I think it’s important – and we’re going to get to the situation of the deposed Prime Minister, Imran Khan, in a moment – but I just want to go through a little bit of recent history regarding the relationship between the United States and Pakistan because, for the two terms of George W. Bush, and for most of the two terms of Barack Obama, Pakistan was a very central part of American foreign policy in the context of the so-called “Global War on Terror.”
And you had, under the regime of General Pervez Musharraf, very close ties to the Bush administration. You had a complicated relationship between the Pakistani spy agency the ISI and the CIA. You had regular – and under Obama – repeated drone strikes in Pakistan. You had Pakistan being an incredibly significant part of the American strategy in Afghanistan. And then the Biden administration takes power, after Trump put in the mechanisms to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, and it was like Pakistan’s cards that it had to play in the geopolitical game with the United States were removed from the table, in many ways.
Pakistan went from having a seat at the table with the United States to being a secondary or tertiary player – if that, even – in America’s global posture, as interests shifted.
Walk us through some of the high and low points of that period of history, starting with 9/11 and stretching to Biden’s pulling out of American troops from Afghanistan.
OW: Thanks, Jeremy. And it’s really striking how momentous that period was, and yet now it’s almost already forgotten, even though it’s just the last 20 years.
And, for Pakistan, 9/11 was a moment of huge anxiety for what at the time was a relatively marginalized military dictatorship in South Asia.
Pervez Musharraf, his coup had not been welcomed; the Clinton administration actually spurned him. There had been this skirmish with India of Kargil. And this regime actually manages – despite its historic record of supporting the Taliban, which had hosted Bin Laden – manages to rehabilitate itself, quite easily and very, very quickly. And the simple reasons for this? One, they had done that before.
This is the history of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, where Pakistan was a crucial ally for the U.S. and for Saudi Arabia. And, given the geography of landlocked Afghanistan and Pakistan’s dominant position there, sometimes these conflicts are actually decided by where neighboring countries are placed, and what geographical advantages they have, and the Pakistan military’s always been good at leveraging that. And what that meant was to provide access for NATO troops to help them crack down on the Taliban.
To ostensibly help with this war, they received billions of dollars annually, and it created this addiction for the Pakistan military in terms of guns and cash. These are the things that they want. They want advanced weaponry, they want the money to boost the economy. And this was, actually, within Pakistan itself, quite a stable and relatively prosperous period.
The economy started to grow. Pakistan became more acceptable within the international community, until an insurgency kicks off inside Pakistan itself, which is a ruinous policy that Pakistan have always adopted of, “let’s back some militants against others,” and then they backfire. And this policy, which we will talk [about] later, also applies to the way they deal with politics as well.
And this then sets up a real dramatic tension between the U.S. and with Pakistan. The Pakistan military grows, ultimately, very anxious with the government in Kabul. It sees it as being too close to the Indians, which the Northern Alliance historically was. It worries about a large-size Afghan national army that would be funded, potentially, to the tune of $9 billion a year, which is nearly double what the Pakistan military itself has.
And Pakistan develops a very paranoid view of its region, where it fears it has to deal with India, its relationships with Iran is not necessarily a hostile one, but it’s not a favorable one; Pakistan has always been closer to the Saudis. And you potentially have this hostile government in Afghanistan with them trading accusations about who is supporting who. Whether it’s the Pakistani supporting Afghan Taliban militants crossing over and making attacks in Afghanistan, or it’s Afghanistan hosting Pakistani militants, who cross the border as well. And what this then means is that the Pakistan military decides not to actually sabotage the U.S. in some ways.
Now, there’s a debate over how decisive this was. Whether the Pakistanis maintaining leverage over groups like the Haqqani network based in North Waziristan is something that meant that the war in Afghanistan was lost. I think it was a factor, but not a decisive one.
But what it does create for the U.S. is a lot of anger, a lot of resentment, and it leads to a shift under the Obama administration, where you have a pivot away from a dual focus on Afghanistan, and Iraq, and other parts, to a much narrower, light-footprint focus through drones, and the emboldening of the CIA in Pakistan’s tribal areas. To the point where you ended up with about four drones a week; it’s kind of unimaginable now, but that’s what used to happen. And, in many cases it would claim militants but also civilian casualties.
This, however, Jeremy, comes to a head in 2011. And, in that year, when relations between the U.S. and Pakistan hit a low from which they haven’t really recovered. And they don’t happen because of everything that happened that year – and I highlight three different events – but it brings all of these different contradictions to a head, where the Pakistanis wanted something different, where the two sides didn’t trust each other.
And this illuminated through the arrest of someone called Raymond Davis in the city of Lahore after he had killed two Pakistani men. The Obama administration at the time had claimed that he was a diplomat; it turned out that he was actually a CIA consultant.
This is a drama that plays out over a number of months. It caused a lot of anger and resentment within Pakistan. It leads the U.S. to try and make extensive efforts to get him out and released. And it deepens the mistrust, particularly between the ISI and the CIA, these two intelligence agencies that had fought the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan together, that had cooperated in the capture and killing of different Al-Qaeda leaders caught within Pakistan.
But now the Pakistanis suspect that the CIA are playing their own game within the country, and this is because the ISI is suspected of backing Afghan Taliban or pro-Afghan Taliban militants, who uses tribal areas to mount cross-border attacks.
The second thing that happens is the most dramatic one, which is the discovery, and capture, and killing of Osama bin Laden in a town called Abbottabad, which is just a couple hours away from Islamabad, the capital, which is a mere mile away from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. And the Pakistanis claim they did not know he was there.
And this leads to only two possible outcomes: either they’re incompetent, or they were complicit. Neither of those are good options for the Pakistani establishment. And no evidence – at least that I’ve seen – has emerged of definitive links, but there are always suspicions that, if it’s not at the top levels, then at some junior levels you had a very murky relationship between rank-and-file Al-Qaeda, Afghan Taliban, and the Pakistani intelligence agencies and the military establishment itself.
Then, it was the end of year, in November, there is a border incident in a place called Salala, where NATO troops end up killing two dozen Pakistani soldiers. Which NATO says was an accident; the Pakistani military sees as just contempt for the lives of Pakistani soldiers. In some cases, they accuse them of it being deliberate.
The combination of these three things plunges the relationship to an all-time low, from which it never really recovers at all. We see some cooperation that happens later around the Taliban withdrawal but, basically, these two forces move away from each other as a result of this spy war, essentially, that was at the center of this relationship. And, since then, what were once very, very close allies are now very estranged partners.
JS: One other development that started occurring around this period that you’re discussing — And, by the way, the Raymond Davis saga is a really fascinating story, with a lot of twists and turns. In the book I wrote, Dirty Wars, I have two extensive sections of the book that deal with the story of Raymond Davis.
But, just to remind people: he was a Blackwater contractor, he was working with the CIA. He claims that the guys who he killed in Lahore were spies that were trailing him. You could actually see video online of Raymond Davis’s interrogation at the hands, initially of police authorities and then, eventually, intelligence people. But it was so high stakes that John Kerry himself flies to Pakistan to deal with this. Hillary Clinton and Obama were deeply involved with it.
And, in the end, it appears as though the U.S. essentially paid a large sum of money, in the form of blood money, but it was routed through a Gulf State to then be paid to the families of some of the individuals who were victims of this whole shootout that took place on the streets of Lahore. But that is all happening while the CIA is preparing to do the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, which we later learned that was going on.
So, the stakes were very, very high. And, as you say, Omar, the relationship then between the ISI and the CIA just rapidly deteriorates. And, in the midst of this, there’s also increasing protests in Pakistan itself against the civilian toll that the U.S. drone strikes were taking on the country. This had been just years of Pakistan being pummeled.
And I remember that Imran Khan, who is arguably the most famous Pakistani alive in the world today, in part because of his fame as a famous cricketer, but also as just kind of an iconic figure from an important moment in global sports. And, certainly, for him to start speaking out in a very political way was newsworthy.
And I remember that Imran Khan, with International Delegations of Peace activists, started then marching to areas that were at the epicenter of American drone strikes. And it’s clear now in retrospect, this was part of a burgeoning campaign for Imran Khan to try to seize power in Pakistan through democratic means. And by taking on – and you could tell me if you disagree with any part of what I’m saying – but from an outsider perspective, it seemed that what Imran Khan was trying to do was to bring several issues together, including the destructive nature of the CIA role in Pakistan to the forefront, as he started launching his campaign for power in Pakistan.
OW: Jeremy, no, I don’t disagree with that, I would just put it slightly differently, which is: For Imran, this is one of the key issues on which he builds this platform. Which is, at the top in Pakistan, you have a venal elite that is feckless and inept, and it has sold out the country for its own self-interest, and ordinary Pakistanis are suffering. This frame he uses for everything, and it fits perfectly for the situation that existed under the Obama administration with the intensification of drones.
So, from the moment a civilian government gets elected in 2008 in Pakistan, you see an escalation of drones. That then becomes emblematic of Obama’s light footprint approach.
Now, in many cases, a lot of militants were killed but, as you mentioned, a lot of civilian casualties were claimed as well, and the Pakistan military gets deeply, deeply uncomfortable with this as well. Which is, they don’t like, as any proud military, someone else using force within their territory as well. And so, what we start to see is a fracturing within the Pakistani elites.
The military increasingly turns away from the U.S. and towards the opinion that’s driven by Imran Khan, which has this nationalist component to it. And there’s deeper resentment towards these feckless, venal elites, who are seen to be too close to the Americans and too distant from their own people.
MH: So, Omar, we want to get shortly to the current crisis that Imran Khan is involved in in Pakistan, but I want to ask you a bit about the circumstances in which he came to power in 2018, originally. As Jeremy mentioned, he was a very well-known and popular cricketer and philanthropist in Pakistan for some time, and he sort of had a political coming out during this period when drone strikes and other activities were taking place under the aegis of the CIA in Pakistan.
In 2018, he was elected to power in Pakistan, but the election seemed to be marred first by many irregularities in the actual voting process, the BBC and others noted at the time, but also a general groundswell of popularity among many Pakistanis who make up his base today. Can you tell us a bit about how Imran Khan actually went from a cricketer and public activist to politician – very abruptly, in some ways – in 2018?
OW: Right. So, Imran Khan wins, and I guess this would be immediately apparent to people from places where they play cricket, and very obscure and difficult to understand in places where they don’t.
Cricket is so huge for Pakistan. It’s not like any other sport. It’s the equivalent of football in Brazil. It is a deep national passion. It is also one of the few avenues through which Pakistan can claim global pride. The joke in Pakistan is, Pakistan’s right at the top of the world on corruption and cricket. You know, these are the high points.
So, what Imran Khan manages to do, this is someone who is an Oxford-educated cricketer, incredibly confident on pitch. Someone who came up in the game when there was huge amounts of racism, and uses this opportunity to not just beat rival India – which is next door, in what became known as a kind of “war minus the shooting” matches that would grip hundreds of millions of people – but also beats the former colonial power to win the World Cup in 1992, which Pakistan had never done before.
Off the back of this, he sets up a cancer hospital, a very good cancer hospital, of which there are now two or three. And he positions himself as this loner in politics, but someone who identifies corruption as the main problem in the country, and this one person who’s fighting against it. This story that he develops, of himself fighting on behalf of the Pakistani people against the elites that have impoverished them, that have hurt them, and done all this for their own naked self-interest, is the leitmotif for his entire career. It runs all the way through to the present day.
I first met Imran Khan and interviewed him in 2007, when he was actually backing a lawyers-led movement for constitutional democracy against the Musharraf dictatorship. At the time, drones weren’t a thing, there weren’t that many drones in Pakistan. This is what he was famous for. And, at the time, he was liked a lot by many Pakistanis, they just never thought he had a realistic chance of coming to power. He did not have a political machine behind him.
Meanwhile, the mainstream parties, led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party, and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Muslim League, were the big political parties at the time. And Imran was working with them in this front of civilian unity against the military dictatorship of General Musharraf. And it succeeded.
It was a flash of an almost Arab Spring-like moment, where peaceful protests on the streets, led by lawyers in this case, backed by journalists, and civil society actors, and political parties, forced this dictator out of office. And you get at least ten years of a weak but continuous civilian-led democracy, which then changes with his election in 2018.
JS: Had there been any allegations or assertions of corruption against Imran Khan prior to his very serious run for political power in Pakistan?
OW: No. No, no. And this was one of the appeals of Imran Khan, is he was seen as someone who was incorruptible. And what his critics would say was part of his weakness, in the sense that he wouldn’t ally with politicians who had powerful infrastructure and bases, because he saw them as corrupt. And so, he never really had a plausible vehicle to transport his electoral ambitions.
This starts to change from 2011 onwards, the period that we were discussing earlier, where it seems the military has now decided, we’ve gone through one cycle with the Pakistan People’s Party, and that was disastrous. Over the past decade, what Imran managed to do was build a political party that had deep roots in the country, but it drew on old, traditional, pro-military politicians. And some of this led to very serious contradictions: He had feudals in there while he’s railing against feudalism, he had robber barons in there while he’s railing against elite capture in the country.
But there are parts of the country where he’s genuinely, genuinely popular, and has emerged on the back of two developments in the country. Pakistan, people may be surprised to know, it’s a rapidly urbanizing country. Most of Pakistan is either urban or peri-urban now. And you’ve had the growth of a huge urban middle class in these spaces. These people were not part of politics before, but now are an increasingly large demographic, and then you have a huge youth population who grew up at a time where the memory of corrupt dynasties was – they were very, very hostile to the idea of these families running the country.
And so, what you see is, on the northwest of the country, near the border with Afghanistan, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, he’s hugely popular. In the largest city of Karachi, which had traditionally been run by this party called the MQM, he becomes hugely popular.
And through this thing, between his own popularity, the support from the youth, the support from the middle classes, the support from traditional politicians in parts of the country like Punjab, the backing of the military, sympathies from journalists, judges, bureaucrats, he builds a powerful national party, which is very closely aligned with the military, and very outwardly confronting the true traditional dynasties that existed in the country.
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MH: Pakistan, at the moment, is in the grip of a very, very dire political crisis, maybe the most dire crisis in the past five decades to hit the country, related, specifically, to Imran Khan’s political fortunes, and his future role in the country as well.
Can you describe to us what exactly happened that led Imran Khan to fall out, specifically, with the Pakistani military? And what is taking place right now vis-a-vis the military and his party in the country, and how is this upending its politics?
And the reason I’m actually very interested in this question as well — I [also] think Americans should be interested — is because, as we discussed earlier, [it’s] one of the world’s biggest countries by population, there’s deep political military ties between the U.S. and Pakistan. And this destabilization, I think people are watching it, it’s very concerning, because it seems to even border on the possibility of anarchy in a country whose stability has been described by U.S. politicians as a baseline interest for many, many years.
So, walk us through what’s happening, and how Imran Khan is at the center of it, at the moment.
OW: So, I would qualify that just a bit. I think it’s a huge crisis politically, but the real crisis is the economy, which is on the edge of default. Pakistan has big political crises, sadly, at recurrent moments, and that’s because of the way the structure of the country is. Where the military has its outsized role, and the politicians, the civilians, don’t have the democratic institutions within which to run it.
And so, you’ve seen, I would push back against the idea, the fears that people may have of Pakistan falling into anarchy. I’m not saying that’s what you are saying, but this is often the perception. You know, this nuclear-armed country could just fall apart.
Actually, Pakistan’s a lot sturdier than that. There’s a book by someone called Anatol Lievin that tries to explain some of the resilience that exists, and how, actually, a lot of the chaos is actually quite orderly within there. And so, just to give you an example, Pakistan had a moment like this in December, 2007, in the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, where there were riots across the country, where there was a huge insurgency on at the time. Pakistan is actually a lot more stable in some ways since then, but it’s a lot more unstable, because of its desperately dangerous economic situation.
Now, what leads to this, the Imran Khan period was something very, very unusual for Pakistani history. Because what you usually had, as I explained, was the military ruling directly, or civilians ruling and falling out with the military in the end, and having their terms cut short. With Imran, you get something which people in Pakistan started to call a “hybrid regime.”
This is where the two sides openly share power. Many of Imran’s party came from a previous military administration under General Musharraf, and maybe some from even before then. But, in this case, they openly share power together.
You have meetings where it’s the prime minister, the army chief, and the head of the ISI, and this becomes a troika that runs the country, and they don’t hide it at all. And what this inaugurates is a very unusual period in Pakistan’s history, where you no longer have the military ruling directly, and you no longer have the civilians at odds with the military’s own prerogative and clashing, but the two coming together for the first time.
There’s huge amounts of repression against the opposition right now, and that repression we’re seeing now being deployed against Imran Khan’s own party. But, together, the prime minister, the army chief, the intelligence chief, make the main decisions. Decisions are made in headquarters, signed off in the Prime Minister’s office, and they all say they’re on the same page.
They now fall out, from 2021 to 2022, which was actually quite surprising. For the time Imran was in office, he was seen as pretty pliable as far as the military was concerned, and they had a lot of alignment on a number of different things. They hated the dynas, they were both proud nationalists, they didn’t get on that well with the U.S., either, and they drew support from the same parts of the country, the urban heartlands.
But they fall out over a couple things. One, Pakistan’s economic situation starts to deteriorate, and the generals get very, very anxious. Two, they feel that Imran is vain, erratic, has too big an ego, and is alienating key partners of Pakistan. And, in a way, this does happen, in ways I don’t think Imran Khan realized. He managed to not just upset the U.S. and the Indians, but also crucial partners like China, Saudi Arabia, Iran. Turkey, and Malaysia, by wanting to side with some at some of the time, ignoring the prerogatives of others, and just kind of mismanaging these relationships.
And so, they decide he’s become a liability. Their biggest miscalculation, though, is, while Imran may have been ineffective as a prime minister in government and unpopular, in opposition, he became very popular. So, when he was pushed out, there was huge backlash from his supporters, but also sympathy from others, on two different points.
One was, why does the military get to decide when governments leave office? Why can’t Pakistanis vote governments out, something that has never happened in the country? And number two, why has this guy been replaced by two political parties of dynasties who have historically been corrupt and ineffectual themselves?
JS: Who exactly then took power after Imran Khan was forced out? There was this vote of no confidence in the Parliament, but I think it would be helpful to expand on what you just said about these two parties and their history.
I guess what I’m getting at is: who were the main forces that ultimately orchestrated this? And are they the same forces that ultimately then seize power in Pakistan?
OW: So, the force that orchestrates all of this is the military, this is their move, right? They have decided, for a few reasons.
There is another factor. That same year, in 2022, the army chief was going to retire. And, before that, there’s going to be a decision to choose an intelligence chief. Traditionally, these are the most important positions in the Pakistani establishment.
Pakistan’s military has a historically unbroken chain of command. There’s never been a colonels coup in Pakistan, it’s actually quite a disciplined institution. And what they won’t tolerate is political meddling in the upper ranks of the military. We see this in other countries. For example, in Bangladesh, the Prime Minister handpicks who the military chief is, and that leads to disastrous splits. The fear the Pakistan military has is, if you engineer these splits, you can get to civil war.
And so, what the army chief at the time, General Bajwa, wants to avoid is Imran picking the intelligence chief and picking his successor. And that’s why they don’t wait for an election to make this move. They pull support from him, and they say to the opposition parties, “this is your chance.”
Now, the opposition parties are pretty standard South Asian parties of old. Which is, you have a slightly center-right coalition run by the Sharif Brothers: former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and former Chief Minister of Punjab Shehbaz Sharif, who are industrialists; pretty consistently center-right on the economy, on matters of social conservatism, religion, nationalism, so on. And then you have the center-left party, which is a party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. More secular, reputedly more progressive, at least when it comes to its manifesto.
In actual fact, both of these parties are deeply corrupt, are made up of very greedy politicians, they have very poor records in power. But one thing that they had, historically, going for them is, they both had records, and I think this is underappreciated, generally, of resisting military dictatorships.
So, the People’s Party resisted the Zia dictatorship. Together, the Muslim League and the People’s Party resisted the Musharraf dictatorship at the time. So, now, they’re sitting in government, but they’re not really in power. Power currently lies with the Pakistan military. They may have a civilian façade there but, what we see is, them operating as if it was a dictatorship without declaring it.
MH: Pakistan currently is in a very, very dramatic state where the military is cracking down on Imran Khan’s party. There’s a program, it’s very interesting to watch, of them arresting Imran Khan’s associates and leaders of his party, forcing them to resign from politics in these very scripted-seeming press conferences.
Imran Khan himself describes what’s happening. As you said earlier, Omar, he’s a very lone warrior against a very corrupt political institution. His message resonates with a lot of people who are frustrated in the country because of years of mismanagement and corruption and so forth.
To what extent is that framing accurate? Did he actually stand against corruption and these maligned forces when he was in office? And, in the case of this crackdown on his party, which seems to be aimed at completely extricating it from political life in the country, despite its popularity in certain sectors, what’s really at stake?
What’s at stake right now in this crackdown, and what is the military hoping for? And what would it mean to exclude him from politics in the future?
OW: The crackdown is deeply, deeply worrying. You’re talking about tens of thousands of people who have been arbitrarily detained, en masse, for nothing other than – in many cases: Some have been arrested for the violent protests on May 9th that attacked the military’s headquarters and a senior commander’s house. But 10,000 people didn’t mount those attacks.
Those 10,000 are ordinary members of his party, because they want to stop this party, and Imran Khan’s party from coming out on the streets and being able to effectively mobilize against the military.
What we’re seeing in Pakistan is calibrated repression on the part of the military. The military will push as hard as the resistance it faces to actually just get an edge more. Because Imran was so popular and so defiant, they’ve gone all out. And what they’ve decided to do, as you mentioned, Maz, was, they have not just arrested people, but they have tortured them, and they’ve made them do these Soviet-style confessions, saying, “I disown the party, I disown Imran Khan. I’m going to leave politics forever now. I’m going to move on.”
Who’s responsible for this? Obviously it’s the military, in terms of, they’re the ones carrying out the repression. But these circumstances were created by Imran himself as well. There were elements of this repression that took place in the lead-up to his election and throughout the three and a half years he was in government.
During that time, we saw peaceful activists like the Pashtun Tahafuz movement, who were subject to arbitrary detentions, torture, extrajudicial executions, forced exile. There are people sitting in jail right at this moment. You had members of the opposition who had trumped up cases against them. Imran is currently facing nearly 150 cases, which include everything from sedition, to blasphemy, to terrorism, to land grabbing, all of these things. Many members of the opposition went through this as well.
What Imran didn’t realize was, in siding with the military, he empowered this engine of repression to come out in the open in ways, actually, in Pakistan, you did not have. For the period between 2008 – actually, even into the Musharraf years – you did not have this kind of repression in Pakistan. You had relative freedom for the media. There were always red lines, and people would cross them, and get into trouble, and suffer terrible consequences, but there used to be spaces for the media, there used to be spaces for political parties, there used to be spaces for civil society and other people to get round.
Now, you are in a situation where the military is defying the Supreme Court and its orders completely. It’s deciding who is going to be arrested, and for how long, and on what charges, whether they make sense or not. And is now threatening to prosecute Imran Khan and his party members under something called The Army Act, which would mean they’d be tried in military courts, in violation of any basic fair trial standards, and could be prosecuted from anything from 14 years of rigorous imprisonment to life.
And the sad thing is, the people who suffer are the people of Pakistan, as a result of this. And what this means is that these attempts constantly throughout the country’s history to push back against the military, to have some move towards accountable democracy, haven’t just been rolled back, but I think they’re hitting close to an all-time low.
JS: What are the potential end games here? I know that many of Imran Khan’s supporters are concerned that he may be killed. There have been attempts on his life. The issues you’re raising about the omnipresence of the military in Pakistani politics, that the military is, for all practical purposes, in full control of the country. You have the dynamic that you described well of Iran Khan having to make a deal with the devil, essentially, to govern in Pakistan.
What do you see as the two or three most likely end games here for this current crisis?
OW: So, a military coup is unlikely, but not impossible in Pakistan, if the military feels that, even with this intensive repression, it has no option but to continue with it, for the simple fact that it fears Imran’s popularity and can’t seem to get a grip on the country sufficiently, then it might happen.
The problem with that, the dangers for them with that is the consequences for it. Pakistan would not be able to get an IMFD, or Pakistan would be isolated. Pakistan would politically turn into the equivalent of a Myanmar or North Korea, where it becomes this semi-pariah or pariah pro-Chinese state. So, that’s not appealing for them.
One thing we’re definitely not going to see is a free and fair election where Imran Khan has an equal saying. They have smashed his political party. Even if he was to run, he just does not have the infrastructure to do that. What we could see is him being disqualified at best, killed at worst, and maybe locked up in between. These are the three options that he is facing, and these are the three options that many, sadly, Pakistani civilian prime ministers have faced at the end of their periods in power. It’s the punishment for their defiance.
Now, I think the advice for a lot of people, one thing that is actually hurting Imran at the moment is his people are in jail and he’s not. This is being seen as a really selfish move on his part in terms of his own self-preservation. And so, the idea of him being able to sway a lot of sympathy behind him, those odds are diminishing.
So, what you may get is some form of a caretaker government that goes on indefinitely, maybe, or some form of a sham election later this year, where the current political parties may contest, but either a breakaway faction of Imran Khan’s party will fight, or maybe a tiny form of it with him, possibly, but there’s no chance he’ll return to power. And, really the best hope for him at this stage would be, can he last and rebuild down the line?
At the moment, that looks very difficult, but we’ve said that before of other prime ministers in Pakistan, and they did get back.
JS: Can you explain what we know factually about any potential U.S. role in these events? Or what the U.S. posture has been, publicly or privately, to the best of your knowledge, Omar?
OW: So, the U.S. is no longer interested in Pakistan. Within Pakistan, many people have talked about this being, wait, is this like, a U.S.-backed plot against Imran Khan? Is this the U.S. getting back into bed with the Pakistani military? Is this about Afghanistan? And so on.
If one actually thinks about it, the U.S. is moving on, and has been trying to move on for a while. The war in Afghanistan was a disaster. Pakistan was not seen as reliable partner. Pakistan is also seen as a trade-off with India. You’re going to have Modi coming to the U.S. later this month, India’s chairing the G20. A central part of U.S. foreign policy now is the Indo-Pacific, and Pakistan does not figure in it. Pakistan has also seem to have moved far too close to China as well.
Having said that, it doesn’t say the U.S. won’t be watching what’s happening. I think, for the Biden administration, Imran Khan was problematic for a number of reasons. I think part of it was, the relationship was already at an all-time low when he came to power, so I don’t think Imran necessarily played a role in exacerbating that. But the two things that Joe Biden cared about was, how do you get an orderly exit from Afghanistan? And then his focus on Ukraine. On both of those questions, Imran was on the wrong side.
So, we see, when the Taliban sweeps to power in Afghanistan, Imran seems to almost celebrate this by saying, “the shackles of slavery have been broken.” Now, that term, they say, was used out of context, but it certainly stings. It’s there, it’s in a Wall Street Journal editorial, and that’s what people think of when they think of Imran’s reaction to the Taliban taking power.
Secondly, on the day of the invasion of Ukraine, Imran Khan is standing next to Putin in Moscow. Again, I don’t think that’s deliberate on his part, but the optics are pretty, pretty terrible. And I don’t think people in Pakistan actually anticipated how badly that was seen.
So, as far as the U.S. is concerned, I think it’s a case where they see the country as, this cannot be a close partner for Pakistan. Because of India, because of China, because of the history. But, at the same time, this is a huge country that borders Afghanistan, China. India, and Iran. It’s nuclear armed, and so they will have some anxieties about it.
The Pakistanis themselves have been trying to play this very difficult act, which I don’t think is sustainable, which is: “we want to be friends with China, we want to be friends with the West, we want to be friends with the Saudis and the Gulf, and we need to balance all of these in our interests.” That’s not happening. No one seems to be rushing to bail Pakistan out, and Pakistan is going to have to probably get through this crisis, really, itself.
MH: I was going to ask a very similar question, actually. Specifically, Imran Khan, when he was deposed from power, he blamed it on the U.S. directly. He said that there was an involvement of U.S. officials engineering his removal from power.
I wanted to know what you thought of how much veracity there was to the claim. And the other things that Jeremy mentioned, I think you already addressed really well, but I was curious very discreetly about the point, was there any evidence or any reason to believe that this claim had some weight to it? That the U.S. specifically took part in engineering Imran Khan’s removal from office.
OW: So, Imran Khan is not a great orator, but he’s a very effective communicator. He plays the demagogue quite well when his back is against the wall.
And so, he reached for three buttons to get the public on his side: he pushed on nationalism, he pushed on religion, he pushed on corruption. “I am the most pious of these politicians, I am the most proud, I am the cleanest, and that’s why people need to get to me.”
Was there a regime change operation in Pakistan? There’s no evidence of it, and Imran no longer says it himself, at all. He very openly says, this was about the military, they wanted to get rid of me, they are now scared I’m popular, they want to keep me out, and it’s very much a domestic affair.
But he used that narrative quite well, drawing on a couple things, which is the history of — I mean, let’s not pretend there haven’t been regime-change operations that the U.S. has worked with, including next door in Iran, including, possibly, in backing coups in Pakistan itself. But, in this case, there’s no evidence of the U.S. actually playing that role, it was very much domestic. But what it did do was, he was able to tap into that anti-American sentiment, or that nationalist sentiment, and use it very effectively towards his own benefit.
JS: All right. On that note, we’re going to leave it there. Omar, thanks so much for joining us, and for sharing your insights with us.
OW: Thanks so much, Jeremy, thanks so much Murtaza. A real honor for me. Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.
MH: That was Omar Waraich, a journalist and human rights advocate. He’s a former head of South Asia for Amnesty International, and has written on the region for publications including Time Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Foreign Policy.
[Intercepted end-show theme music.]
JS: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted.
Intercepted is a production of The Intercept. José Olivares is the lead producer. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Roger Hodge is editor-in-chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. This episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
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Thanks so much for joining us. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
MH: I’m And I’m Murtaza Hussain.
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