Annoying The Gods: Trouble Lies Ahead For Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan
Going by the popular cliche about the reigning gods of Pakistan that preside over its destiny, Prime Minister Imran Khan, it seems, has annoyed all three of them – Allah, Army, and America, not necessarily in that order. He has angered the Islamists who claim to speak for the faith better than Khan, or anyone in his government.
The Sunni hardliners of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) have launched a “Long March” from Lahore to Islamabad, seeking to lay a siege of the national capital. Thousands broke through the multi-layered security cordon along the way, causing casualties on both sides.
Besides the release of its detained chief, Saad Husain Rizvi, the TLP wants Khan and his government to take a strong stand against “Islamophobia” in the West and, in particular, expel the French envoy, because of France’s perceived role in the Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy over alleged desecration of Islam.
The government had reportedly agreed to this last November. But it also proscribed the TLP, while continuing talks with it. Now, the TLP is joined by other hardliners, including Maulana Aziz of Lal Masjid, the mosque where a hundred had died in the Pervez Musharraf era, leading to the birth of Pakistan’s own Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). A section of the mainstream Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has also joined in.
Holding talks while proscribing a body is a recurring theme in the way governments in Pakistan have dealt with the Islamist hardliners, even as the Election Commission recognizes some of them as political parties, allowing them to contest elections.
Despite his Western education, Imran Khan’s own sympathies with the extremists have been known. When in opposition, he always advocated talks with them. Former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, would call him “Taleban Khan.”
Widely accused by his critics of being ‘selected’ by the all-powerful military in the 2018 election, Khan has frequently said the military and the civil leaders are “on the same page.” The army has dittoed this claim whenever they found it suitable. But not right now.
Annoying the Army
Khan has sought to work through Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, Director General of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). A troubleshooter for Khan even in the diplomatic arena (also political, as alleged by Maryam Nawaz Sharif, Vice President, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz), Lt Gen Hameed was on a high-profile visit to Kabul where he bridged differences among the squabbling Taliban groups, ensured key posts for the globally-banned Haqqani Network, and helped form Afghanistan’s interim government.
Media reports say Lt Gen Hameed was doing Imran’s bidding without telling the boss, Pakistan Army Chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa. The latter shifted Lt Gen Hameed out of the ISI, had it officially announced, and then sent it to the prime minister for approval. But this is just a formality. Convention, and not any rules, governs the prime ministerial approval.
Lt Gen Hameed was again in Kabul last week, but now deputed Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, to apparently re-establish civilian authority over strategic issues. But days after Gn Bajwa met PM Khan, and Khan met the ‘incoming’ ISI chief, the notification was not issued.
The turf war between the government and the army remained unresolved when Khan left for Saudi Arabia.
Khan is expected to eventually agree to Lt Gen Hameed’s transfer, which is strictly the army’s domain. But as mind games were played and with the matter becoming a subject of hot public debate, this has certainly blunted the “on the same page” line. Pakistani analysts say the civil-military “hybrid arrangement” has been severely dented and mutual mistrust has set in.
This has emboldened Khan’s political opponents, most of whom have themselves been past beneficiaries of the "arrangement". Several cities have witnessed protests against a steep rise in prices of essential commodities. Rising fuel prices have rendered everything expensive. A US dollar is now worth a whopping 174 Pakistani rupees. But one of Khan’s ministers has defended this to say that Pakistanis working abroad were "benefitted" by the dollar-rupee turbulence.
Thus alienating Allah and the Army, in a manner of speaking, the Imran Khan government has annoyed the third ‘god’ as well, going by the ongoing blame game among America’s lawmakers, diplomats and generals on what went wrong in Afghanistan. Accusations, old and new, are being made on Pakistan’s alleged “double-dealing” with successive United States administrations on the Taliban. The angry talk in Islamabad is that this amounted to scape-goating, after all the sacrifices Pakistan made and facilitating of the US-Taliban Doha Agreement of February 2020.
But this victimhood mentality hasn’t helped, nor has Pakistan’s proximity with the Chinese and Russian approaches on how to deal with Kabul. The delays in economic relief to Kabul have also impacted Islamabad. Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin last week returned from Washington without completing talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Pakistan sorely needs a hefty to ease its economic situation.
Call all this arm-twisting if you must. But what is unfolding in and around Afghanistan is just one more chapter of the Great Game, with the US and allies ranged against the China-Russia-Pakistan axis. Besides, there is an increased danger of Al Qaida and the ISIS-Khorasan, stepping up their activities, directly and through affiliates, in the Af-Pak region.
For Khan, and his military, another climbdown is likely. International media reports quoting multiple, but unnamed, Pakistani sources say the US and Pakistan are talking on airspace facilities the US sorely needs to gain more than just a foothold to counter the increasing Pakistan-China-Russia presence in and around Afghanistan. For the US, this is essential to maintain a respectable presence in the vast region that encompasses South, Central and West Asia.
Pakistan had in June, even before the Taliban got Kabul, refused the United States facilities to conduct any operations in Afghanistan. Khan had vehemently defended this, saying “absolutely not” in interviews given to foreign media. “Pakistan suffered 70,000 casualties, more than any other country by joining the American war. We cannot afford any more military actions from our territories,” he had said, roundly repudiating his country’s participation in the “war on terror.”
Times are a-changing. The Taliban, nurtured and sheltered on Pakistani soil for two decades (2001-2021), now ruling Kabul, have warned Pakistan, or anyone for that matter, of "consequences". The fact of the matter is that the Afghan Taliban, in cahoots with Pakistan’s own TTP, can easily stir trouble for Islamabad. This is where the TLP “Long March” comes in, with others opposed to the Imran Khan government, acting in tandem.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com) Published in arrangement with the South Asia Monitor.