Imran Khan's Ill-Fated Revolution: A Challenge to Pakistan's Military … – Foreign Affairs Magazine

Pakistan is adrift in a sea of troubles. Its economy is in a tailspin. GDP growth in the past year shriveled to only 0.29 percent. Annual inflation has soared to 36 percent, and annual inflation in food prices stands at a whopping 48 percent. The country faces a balance-of-payments crisis, and negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a bailout have stalled. Catastrophic floods in 2022 have forced the country, until recently a wheat exporter, to import wheat.
Compounding the economic misery is the ongoing security threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban, a militant group that has grown increasingly brazen in its attacks on civilian and military targets across the country. Internationally, Pakistan’s standing is at an all-time low. Relations with the United States, once an ally and the source of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance, have waned since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. India, a rival ever since the two countries emerged from the partition of British India in 1947, refuses to engage its neighbor until Pakistan acknowledges its role in backing terrorism across the border and clamps down on militants. Even traditional partners and friends, including China and countries in the Arab and Islamic world, seem weary of Pakistan’s metastasizing crises.
But in the last year, these myriad woes have been driven to the margins by the crisis occupying center stage, a political drama that has convulsed the whole country. Since the spring of 2022, Pakistani politics have been gripped by the struggle between Imran Khan—the populist former prime minister who was ousted by a parliamentary vote of no confidence last year—the country’s powerful military, and the ruling civilian political parties.
Khan once enjoyed the backing of the army, which helped steer him to power in 2018, but he fell out of favor and tumbled out of power in 2022. Ever since, he has led rallies and marches across the country, blaming the United States for conspiring to remove him from office, decrying the government that replaced his, and denouncing senior military commanders. The situation came to a head on May 9, when Khan was arrested on corruption charges, an event that sent his supporters into the streets. Mobs attacked the army headquarters and several military installations, precipitating a crackdown. Khan’s followers have been arrested en masse, and many leaders of his party have quit, some under pressure from the military. It seems unlikely that Khan’s challenge to the ruling establishment will ever be able to regain the strength it once seemed to possess. Khan, often lampooned as a populist hothead, fought for himself more than for democracy, and his orchestration of violence to demonstrate his popularity could precipitate his defeat by the army. Instead of safeguarding Pakistan’s fragile democracy, Khan’s refusal to compromise with other civilian parties has added to the abiding strength of the generals and the tenacity of their grip on the country.
In the best of times, Pakistan’s politics are chaotic. Unsettling highlights of Pakistan’s 76-year history include four wars with India, the loss of half the country’s land area and the majority of its population when East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, religious and sectarian strife, multiple insurgencies, several constitutions, four military coups, and long periods without constitutional rule—along with numerous political assassinations, devastating terrorist attacks, repeated economic failures, and the persistence of poor human development indicators. Pakistan has turned to the International Monetary Fund for bailouts 23 times since 1958 and accounts for more IMF programs than even Argentina, which is considered the IMF’s largest borrower. The latest negotiations with the IMF, on which further assistance from China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates is contingent, have been complicated by the current political instability.
Khan, popular among a segment of Pakistanis who are suspicious of traditional politicians, has become the central figure in Pakistani politics. The former captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team is seen as a messiah by his followers and a demagogue by his critics. He is Pakistan’s first social media–savvy politician, idolized by his young supporters, who lap up his conspiracy theories targeting the United States, the military leadership, and the traditional politicians. Like all populists, Khan is an effective communicator who taps into his followers’ rage and sense of dispossession. Also, like all populists, he offers few real solutions.
When Khan challenged the military after his ouster from office, some observers thought it presaged a momentous change in Pakistani politics. They thought this charismatic leader could perhaps finally marshal enough support to unseat the military as Pakistan’s final arbiter. But the events of May 9, when Khan’s supporters attacked army installations in what have since been proved to be well-planned operations, have effectively snuffed out this challenge. The attacks provided the army and Khan’s civilian opponents an excuse for harsh measures, including a ban on Khan’s appearance on Pakistani television channels. Khan’s reckless calls for revolution may have opened the door for the military to enlist the support of civilians opposed to Khan and further cement its hold on the country.

Khan’s devotees now face the prospect of being charged in military courts, under Pakistan’s Army Act, for entering and attacking army buildings, and under the Official Secrets Act for revealing the location of military facilities on social media. Trials of civilians by military courts might run against the grain of universally accepted norms of human rights but, ironically, Khan has endorsed this practice in the past. Unlike other political parties, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, has never before had to endure serious state repression. Most of its senior leaders are establishment figures who have always sided with the military or the winning civilian faction. Despite his image as a populist rallying the masses, Khan has banked on the support of many celebrities and middle-class professionals. They are more inclined to express their views through social media and are not genuine revolutionaries willing to risk their lives, lose their jobs, or go to prison. That is why, in the face of the ongoing crackdown, many PTI leaders and PTI members of parliament are renouncing Khan and quitting politics.
The government and the military expect this quick capitulation by PTI’s second tier to help erode Khan’s political base. The former prime minister’s appeals for international support in condemning the Pakistani state’s alleged human rights violations are also proving ineffective so far. Foreign governments, especially those in the West, have followed Khan’s indignant campaign with, at best, quizzical interest. Khan has denigrated Western democracy in the past, claiming it does not create opportunities for the masses to improve their living conditions, while praising China’s one-party system for offering a better model. He is now finding it hard to reinvent himself as Pakistan’s new icon of democracy.
Khan also faces an important legal hurdle. He might be disqualified from running for office by the Election Commission, just as, in 2017, the Supreme Court disqualified Nawaz Sharif (who had served as prime minister three times) on flimsy grounds to pave the way for Khan. Khan has received support from Umar Ata Bandial, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who came to his defense after his detention in May, allowing the former prime minister bail and ruling the manner of his arrest unconstitutional. This judicial backing has sparked protests outside the court by Pakistan’s traditional political parties—the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party, the center-right Pakistan Muslim League, and the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam—that constitute Pakistan’s current civilian government. Their wrangling with Khan has sucked up all the political oxygen in the country. Even if the government were able to overcome Bandial and succeed in having Khan disqualified from contesting elections, it would do little to resolve Pakistan’s many social, political, and economic problems—just as Khan’s rise to power with the help of the army did little to solve them years earlier.
Much of Pakistan’s current ungovernability is the result of past political meddling by generals and superior court judges, who have often acted in tandem. The generals abetted Khan’s rise because they were tired of the traditional politicians, whom they saw as corrupt, dynastic, and unable or unwilling to implement security policies favored by military officers. The army encouraged influential local politicians to join Khan’s party, just as it is now coercing them to leave.
The military had hoped at the time that Khan would provide a useful civilian façade for policies dictated by the army’s high command. But by early 2022, the military leadership and Khan fell out over his visceral hatred for the United States, the Islamist and nationalistic tinges in his rhetoric, and his failure to manage the country’s economy. Khan also clashed with the then army chief, whose tenure Khan extended once but balked at extending again and who feared that Khan wanted to emulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in controlling the army and making himself all-powerful.
When the military withdrew support from Khan, it expressed a desire to withdraw from politics, although few considered it credible or likely, given Pakistan’s checkered history. The traditional parties that have locked horns with the military in the past were able to peel off Khan’s coalition partners and topple his government through a parliamentary vote of no confidence. Had Khan accepted the vote of no confidence as part of parliamentary democratic practice, and chosen to sit in opposition, the politicians could have, together, ended the military’s role by ensuring that major policy decisions were made after deliberation in parliament, rather than in the shadows in concert with military officers. The military, stung by the failure with Khan, might also have accepted withdrawal from the domestic political arena, even while retaining a say in Pakistan’s national security and foreign policy and maintaining its share in the economy.
Instead, Khan raged and rejected his ouster. He blamed a conspiracy involving the United States for his misfortune and demanded that the army support him against “unpatriotic” politicians and that the country stage immediate elections even though the current term of parliament runs until October 2023. Buoyed by the adulation of large crowds, Khan started calling for revolution. It was this rhetoric that encouraged his followers to attack army installations in reaction to his arrest over corruption charges—and brought the hammer of the state down on his party.
Pakistan needs a national reconciliation to address the triple threats of economic failure, international isolation, and increased terrorist attacks. But such a truce remains a distant prospect. Every major actor in the current power play has erred in one way or another. Khan has erred in trying to return to power by inciting riots. His refusal to compromise with other politicians—whom he describes as “looters,” “crooks,” and “traitors”—might make him popular with his followers, but it is a recipe for violence. That chaos, in turn, has invited military intervention to restore law and order, a move that only further damages Pakistan’s democratic prospects.
The civilian government under Khan’s adversaries has erred in refusing to announce a date for the next parliamentary election. If they had simply selected a date, Khan would have been forced to campaign rather than orchestrate protests against his ouster. Their reluctance to do so speaks to their desire to seek Khan’s disqualification before staging any election. The traditional parties that are part of the government should not have shied away from elections even if they find Khan’s populist politics unpalatable and intimidating. Moreover, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has yet to learn to rule according to the law and constitution, rather than according to the chief justice’s political preferences. The chief justice’s refusal to include judges that disagree with him in deciding politically significant cases reeks of partisanship. For its part, the Pakistani military has still not learned to let politics take its course instead of intervening, overtly or behind the scenes, every few years.
Unfortunately, so far, there is no sign that any of the players in this political drama is willing to compromise for the sake of Pakistan and its 240 million people. If elections are held after a successful crackdown against Khan and his party, their legitimacy will continue to be questioned by Khan’s supporters. A future civilian government would have great difficulty in maintaining democratic freedoms, sustaining order, and restoring the economy at the same time.
But an unlikely triumph for Khan—if he could, against all odds, win an election and return to power—would not necessarily bode well for the country. Pakistan could end up under a civilian autocrat bent on reprisals against his many enemies. In either case, the military will have plenty of reasons to remain politically engaged, and the dream of a fully democratic Pakistan, run by civilians and not soldiers, will remain unfulfilled.
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