Sergio Restelli

Imran Khan: clean bowled-back to the pavilion?

Imran Khan official Twitter profile
Imran Khan, picture twitter profile @ImranKhanPTI

Pakistani politics is at a very crucial juncture at the moment. In Pakistan the relationship of every civilian government has been tenuous with the military establishment and affliction of the three-year itch seems to have infected Prime minister Imran Khans government as well. It appears that the stand-off over the appointment of the ISI chief has finally sounded the death knell of this army engineered, hybrid-regime.

The Imran experiment has proved to be a disaster. There has been growing discomfort and restiveness within the military ranks over the disarray in affairs of state. The military which propped up the current regime has had to shoulder the blame for the multiple economic, political administrative and diplomatic blunders. And yet they continue to stoically suffer the blame as there seems to be no viable or attractive political alternative.

At this point however it seems like their patience is wearing thin. Imran Khan has forced their hand by interfering in the internal process and workings of the Army for his political interests and survival. For the Pakistani army this is an unforgivable transgression.

History has demonstrated that civilian interference in army affairs, attempts to politicise the army, the picking of favourites from among army ranks has met with severe reprisal in the past. Nawaz Sharif is testament to the fact that this scenario ends in the individual paying a very heavy personal and political price and it is unlikely that it will be any different with Imran Khan.

Khan resisting the selection of the new ISI chief who hasn’t been expressly chosen by him has forced the Army into a corner, obliged to ignore the lack of political alternatives. Co-habitation with a renegade prime minister till 2023 does not seem to be an option for the Pakistani Army. The trust factor has evaporated. With Imran Khan’s refusal to be a mere rubber stamp authority, the fear remains that he will exercise his considerable powers as prime minister.

The fear that he may use his power to change the power dynamic, change hierarchies in the Army, appoint a loyalist as the next ISI chief is very real. His approval is needed to ratify appointments to constitutional offices. He could if he chooses to, dissolve the National assembly and call for fresh elections. In short, he can complicate matters for the military in Pakistan. Ousting him as prime minister may be the only way to release the pressure that is building up in the system.

This poses several existential questions. Deposing him might be a lesser problem as compared to figuring out what next. In any eventuality such as surprise appointments etc the army would probably intervene directly. This promises severe internal repercussions but nothing that cannot be managed with deft diplomacy. In any case Pakistan has several bargaining chips up its sleeve. Its position in Afghanistan makes it invaluable to the US and the West. Chinese and Russian support cushions it from the possibility of a coup. A hypothetical technocratic government could hold the situation at bay with a promise of fresh elections in a finite timeframe that gives the army a chance to reorganise and reorder without the onus of responsibility.

The other option might be a no-confidence motion without provocation. This will prevent Imran Khan from seeking dissolution of the National assembly. This option though entails enrolling Nawaz Sharif into the plan. Obviously, there is a fair bit of horse trading involved and it would be realistic to expect that he would expect the dissolution of the legal suits against him and his family and that he might want to push his brother Shahbaz Sharif into power while remaining in the shadows himself.

A PTI government could be formed sans Imran Khan supported by the PML-N with the PPP possibly in a supporting role if they toe the line. This interim arrangement might tide the country over and help a smooth transition into a caretaker government until fresh elections are held. If the PPP is on board a victory in Sindh is assured. The PTI will be spilt in the centre, in Punjab, Khyber and Pakhtunkhwa. The PMLN is not interested in an in-house change unless it paves the way for new elections which it hopes to win. Chances are that in the next few days Imran Khan and his supporters will have an avalanche of legal troubles.

Meanwhile, on the ground the opposition alliance – Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) – has resuscitated itself and launched a series of protests and is threatening to march on Islamabad. The PPP too is planning a ‘Long March’ of its own. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has emerged from the woodwork and has launched a sit-in in Lahore. Protests against the deteriorating economic conditions are making life difficult for the Imran Khan regime. It is expected that the non-Imran loyalists of the ruling PTI coalition will start distancing themselves from the current regime. This breakaway faction with external support will find it relatively easy to dismantle Imran Khan’s government.

The military will find a willing partner in the opposition which has been hounded and hunted to the point where it isn’t averse to supporting them against Imran Khan.

However, the adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same is true for Pakistan and for the faux democracy in Pakistan. The resultant of these operations unfortunately will be that the policy in Afghanistan will remain unchanged. No matter who is at the helm in Pakistan, the “Quetta shura” will be dominated by the Haqqani’s and therefore the ISI and the Pakistani army.

The tacit support that Pakistan offers the Taliban will only become stronger and with it the use of proxy Islamic elements and armed groups to wage war on the non Islamic world. Pakistan as a nuclear power, in the control of fanatics, is almost doomsday prophecy. The fall of Kabul to the Taliban has started this count down which will, eventually affect South Asia as well as the entire global geopolitical order.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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