No letup in Pakistan's political crisis since Imran Khan's ouster
Situation expected to calm down with new army chief's appointment, who is likely to reshuffle military hierarchy, push government to set elections date
By Shafiq Ahmad
The author is a senior staffer at Anadolu Agency.
ANKARA (AA) - There has been no letup in Pakistan’s political crisis since former Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted from power through a no-confidence vote in April.
On the contrary, matters are coming to a head after Thursday’s failed assassination attempt that has left Khan with four bullet wounds to his legs.
In a video message from the hospital on Friday, Khan accused the ruling coalition government of 11 political parties, led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and some powerful Pakistan military officials of collaborating with the US to destabilize his government and even orchestrating the assassination bid.
All of them have rejected his claim, with Sharif and his Cabinet hitting back at the former premier for destroying Pakistan’s economy and damaging its relations with the US, a country it has been allied with since the Cold War era.
Nevertheless, Khan’s narrative remains quite popular in Pakistan.
His supporters have taken to the streets in several cities, denouncing the government and the military for their actions against Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
In Faisalabad, a city in the politically significant Punjab province, PTI supporters attacked the house of Rana Sanaullah, the current interior minister and one of the people Khan specifically blamed for planning Thursday’s shooting.
Protesters have also been chanting anti-army slogans, a major shift in a country where the military wields unparalleled power.
The US has a history of meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs since its creation in 1947.
Two glaring examples are when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and again after the 9/11 attacks when Washington decided to overthrow the first Taliban government for harboring Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.
Prior to both catastrophic events, democratically elected governments in Pakistan were deposed in bloodless coups.
Khan believes these were American wars that Pakistan was dragged into as Washington’s frontline ally, and paid a high price for its involvement in the form of terrorism, the loss of over 80,000 lives of soldiers and civilians, as well as billions of dollars in infrastructural damage.
To back his claim, Khan has often pointed to the ultimatum Pakistan got from former US President George W. Bush before the Americans and their allies attacked Afghanistan: “Are you with us or against us?”
Washington views Islamabad through Kabul prism
President Joe Biden avoided contact with Khan when he was in power, owing to his critical stance on Washington’s policies in Afghanistan, particularly since the Taliban reclaimed power last year and forced the US to make a hasty exit ahead of schedule.
The situation deteriorated further when Khan replied “absolutely not” to a foreign correspondent’s question about possible US bases in Pakistan after American forces left Afghanistan.
He not only rejected such requests but also refused to let Pakistan act as a service provider in any American wars while sacrificing its own critical security interests in the region.
During Khan’s over three years as prime minister, US dignitaries clearly demonstrated their displeasure by making a beeline to meet the chief of Pakistan’s powerful military.
They only called on the civilian leadership as a formality, further denting the standing of the democratically elected government amid the military’s domineering presence in Pakistan.
Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, remains the highest-ranking US official to visit Pakistan since Biden assumed office.
In response to a journalist’s query before departing for Pakistan from India in October 2021, she said: “We don’t see ourselves building our broad relationship with Pakistan, and we have no interest in returning to the days of a hyphenated India, Pakistan.”
Moreover, changing geopolitical situations and growing convergence between China and Pakistan cast a shadow over Washington’s approach toward Islamabad.
At $62 billion, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is the largest project in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. US embargoes have also pushed Islamabad closer to China, which is currently supplying the Pakistani army with practically all of its military equipment.
End of crisis in sight
In the current political climate, anti-US sentiments are running high, something that Prime Minister Sharif and the military establishment are trying to control.
“Beggars are not choosers,” Sharif said shortly after becoming prime minister, attempting to counter Khan’s narrative against Washington.
However, the current government’s pro-US rhetoric is increasingly backfiring.
Since Khan was removed from office, 24 cases of various types, including corruption, have so far been filed against him.
Several journalists who supported his narrative and accuse the present government of toeing the US line have been forced to leave the country, with one well-known broadcaster, Arshad Sharif, recently murdered in Kenya.
The situation has been exacerbated by decisions taken by the government to secure a tranche of a $6 billion IMF bailout package, including significant hikes in power tariffs and petroleum prices that have caused an enormous upsurge in prices of daily essentials.
While the government has managed to get the IMF funds, its actions have left a majority of the population unable to make ends meet, further boosting Khan’s popularity.
However, political pundits believe things are likely to calm down in Pakistan this month, as a new army chief will take over on Nov. 28, reshuffle the powerful military hierarchy, and push the government to set a date for general elections that is closer than the scheduled October 2023.