On the morning of 9 May, the Pakistani Army led by General Asim Munir finally took off its gloves against former Prime Minister and head of the country’s largest political party, the Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), Imran Khan. In a swift and brutal operation, the country’s law enforcement agencies along with personnel of the Pakistan Rangers, an elite paramilitary force led by serving Pakistani Army officers on deputation, arrested Khan from the premises of the Islamabad High Court to execute an arrest warrant issued by a competent court in what is called the "Al-Qadir Trust case"; Khan and his wife Bushara Begum stand accused of financially defrauding the state treasury.
PTI leaders and party members reacted with fury at Khan’s arrest. The former took to social media to protest while the latter demonstrated on the streets of the cities of the country, especially in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Punjab provinces. Some of these street protests turned violent. The Army did not come out and the police acted with extreme patience as did the Army. This was evident in the Army allowing the protesters to damage the entrance of the GHQ in Rawalpindi and enter the house of the Corps Commander Lahore and harm it.
Clearly, Munir and his generals were following a carefully prepared script for they were aware that Khan retains great popularity both among the masses and sections of the elite. The Pakistan Army jawans are mainly from the Punjab and KP and there have been persistent reports of substantial sympathy for Khan among some sections of the force’s soldiers and junior officers. Thus, the avoidance of the use of force and not bringing the Army onto the streets was a wise move.
Equally, the damage by the PTI supporters at the GHQ gate and the Corp Commander Lahore’s residence would hurt the sentiments of all Army personnel. Normally, it could be expected that the generals would have deployed sufficient force to prevent these incidents. The fact that they did not do so demonstrates their motives.
An Eerie Quiet From Bureaucrats
If the generals acted patiently with the people, the message of firmness they sent out to the country’s institutions was clear. Thus, after a show of certain unhappiness with the manner of Khan’s arrest, the Islamabad High Court, had by the evening, publicly declared that Khan’s arrest was legal.
What is also noteworthy is that Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi who gives up no opportunity to issue statements in support of Khan, remained silent all through the day. And, finally, to make it clear to the Pakistani people that it was now the Army which was fully arraigned against Khan, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif who should have normally rushed back to take charge of dealing with the situation, extended his stay in London by a day. From there, he issued strong statements of support for the law enforcement agencies and the Army and against Khan.
The PTI leadership has asked party members and the public to continue peaceful demonstrations. It is also reported that the party wants to approach the Supreme Court against the manner in which Khan was arrested. The Court is itself divided and Chief Justice Ata Bandial and his group is perceived to be pro-Khan. Hence, while the Chief Justice may continue to have sympathy for Khan, it may be difficult for him to turn the clock back for Khan will be produced for the police to gain remand so that it can investigate Khan in the case. It is likely that the court will allow the police to investigate him and remand him to the custody of the National Accountability Bureau which is handling the case.
Meanwhile, the Army will no doubt turn the screws on the PTI leadership so that at least some break away from Khan. It will seek to convey the message that Khan’s continuance in politics will not be allowed despite his undoubted popularity. The generals will also seek to convey to the people at large that their patience should not be tested beyond a point and if demonstrators seek to really target the Army or indulge in large-scale violence and arson against public property they will be met with force.
The Imran-army Divide May Have Met Its Climax
While the next few days are critical and full of imponderables, the fact remains that since the time Khan resisted the change of Lt General Faiz Hameed from the post of DG ISI by Former Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa in October 2021, the Generals and the Army have been at odds. The chasm has only grown. It led to Khan being ousted from the Prime Minister’s job in April 2022. Instead of quietly retreating for at least some time, Khan decided to take on the generals for he had substantial public support.
His strategy relied on calling for early elections and also targeting the Army. He obviously thought that his vast public support and the fact that Chief Justice Ata Bandial was directing that the constitutional provisions should be followed in holding elections for Punjab and the KP assemblies would enable him to get the better of the Army. He tried his best to ensure that he had a say in the appointment of Bajwa’s successor. That, neither Bajwa nor the Shehbaz Sharif-led government could obviously accept.
Once Asim Munir, with whom Khan’s relations were difficult, was appointed Army Chief, the possibility of a rapprochement between the generals and Khan evaporated. Yet, he continued to pursue the aggressive strategy, he had followed on the cricket ground with some success, in the field of politics where a completely different game is played. He did so despite knowing that he had succeeded in becoming Prime Minister in 2018 only with the support of the Army.
For the Army, Imran has Crossed All Limits
The final straw which broke the generals’ patience against him was his comment on 7 May against the DG Counter Intelligence of the ISI, Major General Faisal Naseer. He had targeted him personally earlier, but now he exceeded all limits. Khan said, “Naseer tried to kill me twice. He is also involved in the killing of Arshad Sharif. He also stripped my party Senator Azam Swati naked and inflicted severe torture on him”. The next day the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) which is the media wing of the Armed Forces came out very strongly against Khan.
In its statement, the ISPR noted, “Chairman PTI has levelled highly irresponsible and baseless charges against a senior serving officer without any evidence. These fabricated and malicious allegations are extremely unfortunate, deplorable, and unacceptable. This has been a consistent pattern for the last one year…”
The Army has signalled that Khan and his supporters have exceeded all limits. Clearly, now elections will be delayed despite whatever the Supreme Court may order. Also, for the foreseeable future, Imran Khan will have to pay the price for taking on the generals as other politicians have done in the past.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)