Could the West switch horses to back a resilient Imran Khan?

| Updated: 21 May, 2023 9:56 am IST
Is the West Considering a Political Transition to Imran Khan?

Observers of the fraught situation in Pakistan have been intrigued by senior US negotiator-diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad’s tweets targeting Pakistan Army chief Asim Munir. Khalilzad repeatedly demanded Munir’s resignation in a series of directly-worded tweets on May 12, May 15, and again on May 19. (His tweets on May 13 were neutral, welcoming the restoration of public order.)

‘Someone new and politically neutral must step into this (army chief) role. I call on General Munir to be a patriot and resign,’ he had already tweeted on May 12, following the violent protests on May 9 and 10 against Imran Khan’s May 9 arrest. And he returned to that line in the week beginning May 15.

One wonders if the US is thus keeping a door open for how-we-can-accommodate-each-other negotiations with Khan following the extraordinary demonstration of public backing for him, including in the politically crucial Punjab province.

ALSO READ: Imran Khan vs Gen Asim Munir: Who will checkmate the other?

Khalilzad was the US’s point man to negotiate the Taliban’s return to power in neighbouring Afghanistan. Therefore, he is often seen as the US’s Man Friday for what former President Obama called the Af-Pak region.

Also notable is the fact that, on Thursday, 66 US Congress members wrote to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in support of democracy and the people’s movement in Pakistan.

What gives all this a keen edge is that Pakistan is stuck in negotiations on how to avoid defaulting on repayments to the US-backed IMF.

ALSO READ: Could a changed Pakistan be more amenable to peace efforts?

In his May 19 tweets, Khalilzad not only repeated calls for Munir to resign, but he also focused on dissent within the army, speaking of two generals refusing to attend a meeting called by Munir, of Munir threatening the families of fellow officers, and of using ‘gutter language’ while addressing the army brass.

Strategic alignments
Khalilzad’s tweets were intriguing precisely because the US was presumed to be the geopolitical mentor of the Pakistan Army under Munir. It certainly seemed to be under Munir’s predecessor and presumed mentor, Qamar Javid Bajwa.

Indeed, several close observers of Pakistan have a rough-and-ready presumption on strategic alignments there: the current coalition, as well as the army under these generals, is presumed to be pro-West. Conversely, their current beta noire, former prime minister Imran Khan, was presumed to be anti-West.

ALSO READ: Imran Khan arrest: Pakistan army’s grip on polity may be forever altered

Indeed, Khan had publicly accused the US of being behind his ouster from power in April 2022 – presumably because the US was angry about his (continued) presence in Moscow when Russia attacked Ukraine. Plus, throughout his tenure, Khan shamelessly refused to criticise China’s ill-treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province.

The fact that Saudi Arabia has recently veered towards the China-Russia-Iran line-up must already have alarmed Western strategists. Turkey too has played footsie with Russia over the past year, despite being a member of NATO.

Pakistan’s inclusion in a putative line-up including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – potentially along with several other important countries such as Indonesia and Nigeria – would signal that ‘the Muslim world’ had bought into the Chinese camp against the West.

Extraordinarily smart politician
Particularly in light of this strategic flux, Washington must be extremely concerned about Khan’s extraordinary success at foiling the army’s (and current government’s) attempts to lock him and his politics down since his short-lived arrest on May 9.

Protests across large parts of Pakistan, including its capital Islamabad and nerve-centre Lahore, made it clear that Khan had the overwhelming support of the people at large in Pakistan. The Supreme Court, too, backed him. And Khan himself proved to be a master strategist and public communicator par excellence, adept at narrativising.

ALSO READ: Dismay to elation—emotions swirl as Kashmiris watch Pakistan

Within a day of his arrest, he had won the communication war, positioning himself as the popular democrat who was being hounded for demanding elections, pitted against a cruel, heartless military-led regime that was not above assaulting women activists. The writing was on the wall: the future was Khan’s as long as he remained alive and in the public eye.

Khan stated in a video in the early hours of Saturday morning that 7,500 members of his party, including its entire leadership, had been locked up, that anyone was arbitrarily labelled ‘wanted,’ and that security personnel had destroyed and stolen things from homes they entered.

What makes all this particularly challenging for the US is that, around the world, the US presents itself as a champion of democracy, often making that its reason for intervening in other countries. But, jarringly, at least two prominent journalists have been abducted, evidently by those in power in Pakistan – and an investigative journalist was assassinated, reportedly after `brutal torture,’ abroad last year.

ALSO READ: Could a shadow cold war be at play in Pakistan’s turmoil?

Being seen as backing those engaged in brutality against a widely perceived champion of democracy, and independent media, would undermine the West’s credibility around the world – even domestically. It might prove politically costly for a Democratic regime in the White House.

Strategists may have assessed that, unless Khan was killed, he was bound to win power sooner or later. But, whether he won or was killed, the anti-US sentiment was bound to reach a crescendo, not only in Pakistan but elsewhere too.

Covert negotiations?
There is evidence on social media that Pakistanis based in North America have had long conversations with Khan over the past few days. One wonders if overtures have been made and if a covert accommodation might have been proposed for the US to switch its support to a potentially more amenable Khan.

ALSO READ: How deeply is Pakistan’s army divided over Imran Khan imbroglio?

Khalilzad’s tweets targeted Munir by name, rather than the army or the incumbent government. Getting the army chief to hand over the reins to another officer could possibly be part of a road map for Imran to return to power, perhaps with changed geo-strategic alignments.

If that is indeed in the works, dealmakers should keep in mind Khan’s propensity to chart an independent course once he achieves an objective. Many observers believe that he went against the army after it helped bring him to power.

David Devadas is a journalist and security, politics and geopolitics analyst
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own

Also Read Story

Bibhav Kumar, Kejriwal’s aide, sent to 4-day custody in Maliwal case

World Schizophrenia Day 2024: Reasons and Treatment

Pune Porsche crash: Teen’s bail revoked, adult trial ordered

Delhi braces for intense 2024 Lok Sabha battle