November 26, 2022

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

On Thursday, November 3, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan narrowly escaped an assassination attempt as he led his “long march” rally through Pakistan’s largest province of Punjab to reach Islamabad after suffering a gunshot wound in his leg.

The attacker – who was arrested immediately and said he had no support from any group – admitted to authorities that he was motivated to kill him by Imran Khan’s “disregard” for religious rituals.

While it is rare for political leaders to avoid assassination attempts in Pakistan (many have been killed, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007), the fact that Khan survived has meant that the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (Pakistan Justice Party) led by Khan to unleash an intense wave of political attacks on the powerful military establishment for its manipulation of politics.

Khan targets the establishment

Between 2018 and 2022, Khan and the military establishment were allies, as Khan himself testified many times that he and the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), Qamar Javed Bajwa, were on the same side on all political issues. But the Khan government’s failure to spur on promised economic growth and the opposition’s success in shifting the burden of failure onto the military establishment forced the latter to withdraw its support in favor of the opposition, prompting the Khan government’s ousting by a vote of no confidence triggered April.

However, Khan’s fall did not mean the end of his political career. Instead of accepting the overthrow as a fait accompli, he launched “The Free Pakistan Movement,” claiming that his overthrow was orchestrated by Washington and that the new government was installed by the US for refusing to give US airspace for Washington’s “over the horizon” strategy of conducting airstrikes in Afghanistan to target al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants.

While Khan’s theory of US interference was soon dismissed, what angered Khan most was that it was the military establishment itself that exposed Khan’s anti-US populist narrative, as it confirmed that there was no evidence of US interference.

Khan therefore needed another rallying point to remain politically alive. By August 2022, within five months of his ouster, he turned his guns on the military establishment and its support for the incumbent government. He was able to do this because of his popularity stemming from his party’s success in dominating Punjab by-elections and convincingly defeating government candidates.

Confident of his support in Pakistan’s largest province – which has been the center of military recruitment since colonial times – Khan restarted his movement, which is now targeting the military establishment. Within a day of the shooting, he was appearing live from the hospital in the media, targeting the current regime and the military, although there was no connection to the government.

Aside from naming the acting prime minister and interior minister, Khan specifically accused a senior official of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Major General Faisal Naseer. Regarding General Bajwa, Khan said, “This general is leading the country towards destruction,” Khan said, adding that the military establishment was driving Pakistan into territorial disintegration in 1971, when East Pakistan became an independent state of Bangladesh during the dictatorial rule of General Yahya Khan after a brutal civil war and Indian military intervention.

The Pakistani military’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), called Khan’s allegations “baseless and irresponsible”.

ISPR’s response notwithstanding, no political party has so openly and explicitly named military and intelligence officials on duty for their involvement in politics, including assassination attempts.

While Khan has provided no evidence of their involvement, he and his party have successfully manipulated the scenario to their advantage by specifically targeting the regime.

Why is Khan so powerful today?

Imran Khan has never been more popular than today. His base of support is not just limited to the electorate. Pakistani political experts believe that Khan has a significant base of support within the military establishment and even the judiciary. Many of its rallies are attended by ex-military figures, including retired generals. Former DG ISI Zaheer-ul-Islam recently joined Khan’s party.

Most analysts familiar with the military’s internal dynamics believe that there are many internal military tensions associated with some factions supporting Khan and some leading factions, led by the COAS, which are aligned with Khan’s movement and politics oppose.

PTI internal sources have confirmed to Asia Sentinel that their party has support within the establishment. That support extends to the support Khan enjoys in the judiciary, as evidenced by the kind of preferential treatment he received in a recent contempt of court case in which the Islamabad Supreme Court gave him frequent opportunities to plead guilty to apologize to the judge who threatened Khan in one of his speeches in August 2022.

The court’s handling of Khan’s case differs markedly from that of former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who was convicted on a count of contempt and disqualified for five years in 2012.

What does Khan want?

Khan’s movement is not for a strong, civilian-led, parliamentary democracy in Pakistan. Drawing on the support of some powerful sections of the broader establishment, including the judiciary, his movement advocates a system in which he is omnipotent and possesses unchallengeable authority. Its political ideal is Riyasat-e-Medina, a system of politics and power created by Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in the 6th century and consolidated by Islam’s first four caliphs in the decades that followed.

While even Khan knows that recreating this system is impossible for all practical reasons, his justification for this ideal includes a justification for a powerful state dominated by a central leader, in this case himself.

Many of his opponents therefore see Khan’s politics as a version of fascism projected into a religious narrative for general consumption. This is one of the main reasons why Khan has no powerful political allies on his side as he continues to project other political elites as “corrupt” and “thieves”. His opponents see his constant bashing of his opponents as evidence of his lack of interest in building a strong civil democracy, a system that inevitably requires a larger political consensus involving all major parties.

But Khan’s PTI shows no sign of such a possibility just yet. In simple terms, with Khan standing at the opposite end of the political spectrum with no political allies but powerful populist and partisan support, his eventual success in overthrowing the regime and forming his government would usher in a new era of exclusionary politics that amplifies political persecution on the one hand and institutional meltdown on the other.

However, if Khan can find a middle ground with other parties, the current crisis could herald a new era in civil politics.