How Imran Khan’s removal affected civil-military ties in Pakistan

Islamabad, Pakistan – Imran Khan is once again trying to bend the arc of Pakistani politics to his formidable will.

Recently removed as prime minister, Khan has quickly returned to his political roots and is rallying his supporters against what he calls a rigged system.

And his supporters are responding.

At a rally in Karachi on Saturday, Khan was cheered on by a sizeable crowd as he once again laid out an alleged plot by the United States to remove him from office.

“So tell me, Pakistanis, was this a conspiracy or not, raise your hands and tell me,” Khan asked.

“Conspiracy!” the crowd roared back.

The exchange was a swipe at Pakistan’s powerful military leadership.

On Thursday, military spokesman Major-General Babar Iftikhar made national headlines, rejecting Khan’s claim the US had partnered with allies inside Pakistan to remove Khan.

The military spokesman specifically refuted the use of the word “conspiracy” by Khan, prompting the former leader’s exhortation to the crowd in Karachi.

The back and forth between Khan and the military leadership is part of a high-stakes political strategy by Khan to keep himself at the centre of the national political discourse and force early elections on favourable terms.

For the cricketer-turned-politician, the risks are significant, with the military leadership bristling at the freewheeling political criticism directed at it, since his exit, at protests organised by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and on social media.

“Army draws its strength from people and any effort to create wedge between army and population won’t be tolerated,” army chief General Qamar Bajwa was quoted as telling his officers in a reference to unnamed “hostile forces”.

Role reversal

For years, the PTI revelled in being on the “same page” as the military leadership, a claim of civil-military harmony unlike under previous civilian governments.

The PTI also routinely castigated its political opponents, particularly the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), for allegedly maligning the military leadership

Now, it is the PML-N that is accusing Khan and his PTI of attacking the military leadership.

On Monday, Marriyum Aurangzeb, likely to be the next information minister, accused the PTI of organising a campaign on social media to “abuse institutions, promote hate speech and spread chaos in the country”.

Khan’s latest political quest, this time to regain power, is also colliding against the reality of power being consolidated by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, whose government now controls parliament.

And on Saturday, amidst fisticuffs in the Punjab Assembly, Pakistan’s most populous province, power was again wrested away from Khan’s PTI.

 

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