The most unexpected war to emerge after the nail-biting cliffhanger vote of no-confidence by the combined opposition against ousted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was not between his party and the Opposition, but between Imran’s party and his followers against the military establishment. In the ugliest and one of the most dangerous fallouts, it has seen angry, filthy abuse being hurled at Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Director-General Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI) Nadeem Anjum, and some of the judges who ruled that the vote must be carried out on 9 April.
The 'Fifth-Generation Warfare' Label
Till the day before the vote, these two parties were as one attacking everyone and anyone who differed with members and supporters of the hybrid regime. Pakistan was literally divided into two – the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the military – against the rest of the Pakistanis. Critics of military interference in politics were targets of the vilest abuse and threats by both ‘youthias’ (a derogatory term used for PTI supporters) and ‘fifthias’ (a term used for ISPR- and ISI-paid trolls). Indeed, you couldn’t always tell them apart: they would all have Allah, Quranic verses, or the COAS of the day, or former DG ISPR Asif Ghafoor, or the Markhor, displayed on their profile banners.
The ‘fifthias’ got their name from the infamous Asif Ghafoor often referring to critics as waging a “fifth-generation war” on the state of Pakistan on behalf of foreign powers. Using the label of “fifth-generation warfare”, the army’s paid trolls and Imran's supporters were trying to silence anyone who dared to say that the military had conducted massive rigging and engineering to bring the PTI to power. Both parties were always wont to deny the relationship.
How the Pied Piper of Hamlin Became 'Khatarnaak'
Knowing that he has nothing to show for his three-and-a-half years in office and that the ouster was certain, the Pied Piper of Hamelin alleged American conspiracy against him in his bid to ward off or delay the ouster. Just like the Pied Piper of medieval folklore had threatened the villagers that he would lead their children away like rats with his magic pipe, Imran Khan, too, threatened to become “khatarnaak” (dangerous) in opposition.
Indeed, after getting booted out, he did go on to become dangerous, to the extent of becoming an existential threat to the army and society. He did lead their children away with deeply populist rhetoric. He painted General Bajwa as Mir Jaffer, the traitor who held back his forces in the Battle of Plassey and allowed the British Crown via the East India Company to gain a foothold in Bengal.
He called the new government “imported government”; ever since then, the ‘imported government’ hashtag has not stopped trending on Twitter. He implied that the army and the new government were ‘slaves’ of America. All this has resonated deeply with Imran’s core base, which has become wildly angry and recharged.
When Gen Bajwa Called a Bluff
But the problem is, Imran Khan’s core base is the same as the army high command’s: serving and retired army officers and their families, and a middle class connected with them in various ways. Now, it appears that there is deep resentment, at least in the retired cadre. Some say a fair amount of resentment also exists in the serving rank and file.
The army has been at pains to hold formation commanders’ meetings, press conferences, garrison meetings, and Q&A sessions with ex-servicemen to justify their “neutrality” or apolitical stance. In the press conference by the Director-General Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR), all of Imran Khan’s conspiracy theories (American plot), false claims (refusing US demands), and allegations (he was presented with three options by the establishment) were dismantled.
In the meetings, General Bajwa has been asked tough questions by those who believe that the army should have supported Imran Khan. And Gen Bajwa has, according to several who attended the meetings, responded with exhaustive detail on Imran Khan’s lack of capacity, delivery, intransigence, and dubious character.
He has also reportedly said that he had to do everything, including having to get the budget passed, keeping Imran’s allies and party members together, getting money from abroad, and so on and so forth. He added that now, it was time for Imran to stand on his own two feet and that he cannot “babysit him forever”.
This was countered with, “but he is so popular, the opposition are thieves” appeals, to which Gen Bajwa is said to have said something to the effect of, “Well, if he is so popular, then what’s the problem? Elections are coming, if he gets a majority and forms a government, we will have no problem.” It was like calling a bluff. But apparently, the resentment continues to fester.
Why the Army Should Be Endorsed This Time, For a Change
There are a few fascinating takeaways from this discourse, and these are mirrored in social media conversations, too. Supporters of Imran Khan feel that the army is a traitor for not intervening to keep dacoits out and supporting the ‘true leader’, who, according to them, is the only person who can solve all ills and set Pakistan on its flight to greatness.
But the irony is that they do not think that the true leader can actually do this himself. The intellectual dishonesty being displayed by Imran Khan’s supporters is that they now see themselves as constitutionalists who oppose the army’s “role” in Imran Khan’s downfall, even though the “role” has been to let a constitutional process take its course.
Also, why the army, for a change, deserves to be endorsed this time is because for once, it has abided by its oath to defend and protect the constitution of Pakistan – even if it was to rid itself of its own project gone awry.
Such has been the pressure on the army chief that he did not attend the Prime Minister’s oath-taking ceremony. He only paid a courtesy visit to the Prime Minister on Tuesday, seven days after oath-taking, after eyebrows were raised at these unprecedented infractions of the settled protocol.
At the end of the day, the army leadership finds itself in a pickle as Imran and his former cabinet ministers continue their attack on the army leadership and the Supreme Court bench that ruled against his filibuster. Indeed, the PTI bettered the fifth-generation warfare and the use of disinformation, Islam, and patriotism – it learned the trick from the master himself.
Swelling Support for Imran
Former Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said on Twitter that Pakistan was “inches away from full-fledged civil unrest”. He said, “Very soon, even [Imran Khan] won’t be able to stop this very angry mob and we’ll see the country plunging into civil unrest.”
Patriotism and religion are being invoked to rouse their base. Former advisor Shahbaz Gill said on Twitter in Urdu, “Imam Hamid Saleemi has exhorted Muslims of the world to support Imran Khan. He said that Imran Khan speaks like Umar bin Khattab Razi Allah Anho.” He subsequently deleted it, after over 13,000 likes and over 6,000 retweets.
Some supporters are likening the vote-of-no-confidence to the Battle of Karbala, in which Umayyad Caliph Yazid killed Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Husayn. Others are preaching that their leaders are like their prophets and that they would die to defend them. Many other supporters are going to rallies to “take bayt [Islamic oath of allegiance to the Khalifa] on his hand”.
The New Govt Has Big Challenges Ahead
What does all this portend? Will Imran Khan sweep back into power in the next election? The reality seems to be that his base is charged, but it does not form the critical mass that is needed to win in a fair and free election. Will the army be cowed into intervening once again with massive rigging to appease its constituency that’s almost the same as that of Khan, and install him back in the Prime Minister’s seat?
I would say no, for several reasons.
Not only was Imran Khan a complete failure, but he was also a complete disaster not just for the economy, social fabric and international relations of Pakistan, but for the army itself.
He and his party brought the country to complete anarchy; they refused to abide by the Constitution, vacate the posts they no longer held, and take oaths from newly elected/notified officials. They incited violence in general and perpetrated unrest within assemblies to illegally hang on to power. The PTI turned the army’s own constituency against it and threatened to burn the country down.
The majority of Pakistanis and major stakeholders who were bitten by the hybrid regime have now perforce been given the space to try to excise the cancer injected into its body politic. The army would stay in retreat for some time to allow the new government to bring the country out of the economic morass it is in, chart its return from the brink of bankruptcy, and lead it out of the international wilderness it finds itself in. There is no other choice.
(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)