Imran Khan Poses Pakistan’s Military Hardest Challenge In Decades

Khan has precipitated the worst crisis for the military since a lawyers’ movement forced Pervez Musharraf out of power and it later failed to detect Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst where military officers are trained

Imran Khan at Lahore’s Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre. Reuters

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Despite an assassination attempt and reports of fresh threats to his life, former Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed to resume his march on the capital Islamabad demanding snap polls. He has sought to continue his showdown with Pakistan’s powerful military establishment since his ouster from power in April. Khan, whose party is in power in two of Pakistan’s four provinces and as many territories accounting for over 75% of the country’s population, has blamed the establishment for his removal. He has also named an army officer for plotting the assassination attempt

Khan has been buoyed by a groundswell of support for him since his ouster. He has swept by-polls and held big rallies across Pakistan. His party is practically Pakistan’s only national party while two other major players, Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), are confined to Sindh and Punjab. Khan has emerged as the biggest challenge to the military establishment in decades. A Pathan from Punjab, Khan also draws his support from among Pakistan’s two major ethnic groups, which have been the mainstay of the country’s powerful army.

Khan has tapped into the public resentment over the return of the political status quo and to power to two families, which have ruled the country since the late 1980s despite serious corruption charges. The use of intimidation against Khan and his supporters also appears to have backfired. The street power Khan enjoys makes him the most potent challenger to the establishment in recent times. Tens of thousands of Khan’s supporters have taken to the streets demanding fresh elections amid rising prices and inflation.

Khan has precipitated the worst crisis for the military since a lawyers’ movement forced Pervez Musharraf out of power and it later failed to detect Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst where military officers are trained. American commandos took out bin Laden in a raid deep into Pakistan territory on May 2, 2011. The establishment was accused of winking at the Americans while feigning ignorance about their plans to raid Laden’s hideout. It was either seen as incompetent or complicit and had even its ardent supporters up in arms.

Spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) also suddenly faced a flurry of cases. In February 2012, the Supreme Court ordered ISI to produce seven alleged militants suspected to be in its captivity for two years as the agency had a tough time explaining four custodial deaths. The court refused to accept its explanation that the detainees were terrorists. In Parliament, Opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan likened the military to a ‘mafia’ as the judicial scrutiny over the custodial deaths found an echo in the House. Jamaat-e-Islami would table proposed legislation to clip the ISI’s wings and curtail its powers to detain people.

In October 2012, the Supreme Court ordered criminal proceedings against former army chief General Aslam Beg and Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, the then ISI chief, for rigging the 1990 election. Durrani confessed to spending millions to influence the election to bring Nawaz Sharif to power at the behest of Beg.

Durrani and Beg’s indictment was a double whammy for the establishment that too thanks to one of its own, Air Marshal Asghar Khan, a 91-year-old former Pakistan Air Force chief. Asghar Khan’s lawyer, Salman Akram Raja, also persisted through protracted court proceedings and rejected offers for elevation as a judge and a seat in Parliament to successfully argue against a 2009 executive order, which sought to drop cases against tainted politicians to help Musharraf prolong his rule. He was also part of the lawyers’ agitation that forced Musharraf out of office in 2008.

The successes against the military establishment and ISI were notable since they have long been considered beyond scrutiny. Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ironically established ISI’s political wing. It entrenched ISI’s meddling in politics in the 1970s when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan turned out to be a godsend opportunity for the demoralized agency and the establishment following Pakistan’s dismemberment.

The US and other global powers pumped billions of dollars into the anti-Soviet Afghan war in the 1980s as ISI was chosen to funnel weapons and money into Afghanistan. The war gave the agency ‘an autonomous financial base’ and boosted its power within the ‘military and the state.’ The ISI collaborated with the American Central Intelligence Agency to defeat the USSR. This helped ISI consolidate its position domestically decades after its founding in 1948 as a minor, insignificant, and understaffed counterintelligence agency.

Major General R Cawthorne, an Australian officer on deputation to the fledgling Pakistan army, founded the ISI. He modelled it on the lines of Western spy agencies after a lack of intelligence coordination contributed to Pakistan’s loss of Kashmir. In 1965, ISI overestimated local resentment in Kashmir which prompted Pakistan to send irregulars to wrest the region. Most of the irregulars were caught without sparking a rebellion and triggered the 1965 war with India, which retaliated by crossing the border in Punjab.

The ISI failed to read the mood in East Pakistan in favour of the Awami League ahead of the 1970 elections as the party swept the polls winning all but two seats to emerge as the biggest party in the national parliament. The refusal of power transfer sparked a civil war, which prompted India to intervene to help the Bengali separatists carve out Bangladesh by dismembering Pakistan. India took over 76,000 soldiers as prisoners of war.

A decade later ISI bounced back thanks to the Afghan war to become an embodiment of the military’s supremacy. It became a behemoth, which was no longer just restricted to covert operations. The ISI’s responsibilities extended to domestic security, foreign policy, and politics. Its political meddling was Pakistan’s worst-kept secret and an important marker of the agency’s powers. No one really believed the ISI could be challenged until Asghar Khan proved otherwise.

Asghar Khan took the ISI to the Supreme Court in 1996 at the age of 75, seeking accountability for illegally financing a campaign to influence the 1990 election. The financing is believed to have tilted the scales in favour of an alliance against Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Benazir Bhutto’s loss of power in 1996 pushed the case on the back burner. Her successor, Nawaz Sharif, was among the beneficiaries of the ISI’s largesse and the case threatened to end his political career. The case remained in cold storage after military ruler Pervez Musharraf deposed Sharif in 1999 to rule for the next nine years. Asghar Khan persisted well into his 90s for the next 16 years and continued to attend court hearings despite his advancing age. But unlike Imran Khan, he did not have the political capital to take the fight to the finish.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

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