Imran Khan’s rollercoaster ride: Twists, turns in Pakistani Politics

Pakistan’s political landscape is in turmoil, with Imran Khan’s acrobatics, surprising twists in US interests, and hidden power plays within the Pakistan Army. As the political circus unfolds, the future looks uncertain for Khan

| Updated: 23 May, 2023 12:00 pm IST
Former Pakistan PM Imran Khan

It seems Pakistan these days is on a rollercoaster ride featuring the acrobatics of Imran Khan, the surprising twists of US interests, and hidden trapeze acts within the Pakistan Army.

I finished reading David Devadas’ analysis of the recent turmoil in Pakistan and picked up an interesting development in the shape of tweets from Zalmay Khalilzad – the US peace negotiator with the Taliban during the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. But first, we might need to buckle up, because the political circus in Pakistan could still take an unexpected turn.

There is no doubt that Khan is a daredevil acrobat, for he has taken this Pakistan “civilians versus army” feud to a level never witnessed before. And now it appears that the US has suddenly been influenced by him. So, Zalmay Khalilzad has taken the ‘Assad-must-go’ line against Pakistan Army Chief Asim Munir. He has been tweeting, asking General Munir to resign.

This is quite surprising, considering that General Munir’s predecessor, General Bajwa, was literally the poster boy for US interest in Af-Pak. And it was during Bajwa’s time, and with “US blessings”, if we are to believe Khan, that Khan was unceremoniously kicked out of the Pakistan Prime Ministership. General Munir is simply carrying forward the legacy by making it as difficult as possible for Imran to make a comeback.

So, what happened? Is it that the US wants to dance to the beat of Khan’s “Naya Pakistan” playlist, or is it just a catchy political gimmick and their overall confidence in the Pakistan Army remains the same?

It is too early to say. The US’ sudden interest in Khan might be because they are finding themselves increasingly irrelevant in the Middle East and West Asia, as Devadas points out. This might well be their gambit to find a toehold in this region – after all, the Pakistani civilians have demonstrated their love for Imran during the past week; and rescuing him while he is in danger might do the trick.

It could also be because of China. China was not happy with Khan and his views about the CPEC. And even though Beijing is maintaining a complete radio silence about the ongoing chaos in Pakistan, there have been previous assertions that China has begun to prefer the current Sharif-led government over Imran, something that Michael Kugelman captured briefly in a Foreign Policy article. Reasons cited include what seemed like Imran’s deliberate attempts to slow down different Chinese projects related to the CPEC.

Washington, of course, has always been a staunch believer in the ‘enemy’s enemy is my friend’ maxim.

But maybe, given Shehbaz Sharif’s decent relations with the West compounded Washington’s incorrigible disease of inserting themselves into affairs around the globe to stay relevant, and presented them with a unique challenge: to quickly identify a weakling. And maybe Munir looked like one to them. After all, the media is quite chatty these days about a split within the Pakistan Army. So, Khalilzad took to pinpointing his attack on Munir.

With the mighty US hedging its bets while trying to pry open this so-called fault line within the Pakistan Army, these are interesting times, no doubt! However, what the Khalilzad tweet missed is what the highly respected analyst Ayesha Siddiqa notes: “Khan believed he could exploit dissatisfaction and internal differences within the army to his advantage. Some top generals may be unhappy with Munir, but scenes of public disrespect towards the military and attacks on military symbols had the effect of reminding them that they would be better off sticking with their chief.”

While the shadow that the present conflict casts changes shape almost every hour, it looks like Khan probably employed a series of moves on the chessboard that were checked and countered by his opponents. He is not a candidate of choice for the present Pakistan government, the Pakistan Army, China, or a chunk of the international community – given his pro-Taliban image from the recent past. He sure is a favourite with a large section of the Pakistani population, but then, crowds are known to matter only when the West orchestrates colour revolutions these days.

On the off chance that Washington is considering the staging of a colour revolution, the signs don’t look encouraging. The Pakistani crowd that rallies behind Khan is not too fond of the USA. Besides, with US watchwords like LGBTQ or equity and diversity, they would be a difficult catch.

Pakistan is a place where people take pride in sectarian killings, rape-murdering women, and forced conversions. Even if there was a remote chance, the political will of Khan’s PTI looks shaky given the present condition, and that pre-empts the establishment of financial networks and channels required to sustain a colour revolution.

Khan, once the ringmaster of Pakistani politics and the poster boy of the army, finds himself confined to his political Big Top while Munir slowly takes centre stage. The army is expected to gain control over the chaos sooner rather than later. And once that happens, he might face unpleasant consequences.

The Pakistan Army has already put across their demand that Khan either leave the country or face their court. It would make a thriller if the former Pakistan PM were to tame the wild beast, but it looks like he would probably be swallowed by it.

A parting thought, influenced by an Arshia Malik piece where she silently exhales while watching Karma marking its spot in Pakistan – a country that always relished the idea of ‘bleeding India through a thousand cuts’ – as it descends into what looks like a civilian crisis coupled with an existing economic one. AK 47 totting crowds, looting and burning of public properties, ghosts of unfinished infra-projects looming large, and massive food shortages, the article reminded me of the Nietzsche quote: …And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical analyst and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed
Disclaimer: Views expressed are the author’s own

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