Pakistan's Imran Khan Plays a Dangerous Game – Foreign Policy

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Argument: Imran Khan’s Dangerous Game Imran Khan’s Dangerous Game… | View Comments ()
Pakistan has rapidly lurched into disarray after Imran Khan became the country’s first prime minister to be removed from power in a parliamentary vote of no confidence on April 10. In a gambit to block his ouster, Khan made stunning allegations, accusing the United States of plotting a coordinated conspiracy with a motley coalition of Pakistani opposition parties to topple his government.
While Washington has dismissed the accusations, they have put renewed strain on Pakistan’s long-troubled relationship with the United States, an important security and economic partner. The spectacle of Khan’s removal has also increased the dangers of countless smoldering fires across Pakistan’s political, religious, and militant spectrums waiting to be lit.
Since his removal, Khan has doubled down on his U.S.-directed conspiracy narrative in a country where anti-Americanism and militancy pervade, without providing any conclusive evidence. “Pakistan became an independent state in 1947; but the freedom struggle begins again today against a foreign conspiracy of regime change,” Khan tweeted shortly after his ouster. He declared he would not accept “US-backed regime change” that “bring[s] into power a coterie of pliable crooks,” branding his political opposition “national traitors” and the new caretaker setup an “imported government.”
Pakistan has rapidly lurched into disarray after Imran Khan became the country’s first prime minister to be removed from power in a parliamentary vote of no confidence on April 10. In a gambit to block his ouster, Khan made stunning allegations, accusing the United States of plotting a coordinated conspiracy with a motley coalition of Pakistani opposition parties to topple his government.
While Washington has dismissed the accusations, they have put renewed strain on Pakistan’s long-troubled relationship with the United States, an important security and economic partner. The spectacle of Khan’s removal has also increased the dangers of countless smoldering fires across Pakistan’s political, religious, and militant spectrums waiting to be lit.
Since his removal, Khan has doubled down on his U.S.-directed conspiracy narrative in a country where anti-Americanism and militancy pervade, without providing any conclusive evidence. “Pakistan became an independent state in 1947; but the freedom struggle begins again today against a foreign conspiracy of regime change,” Khan tweeted shortly after his ouster. He declared he would not accept “US-backed regime change” that “bring[s] into power a coterie of pliable crooks,” branding his political opposition “national traitors” and the new caretaker setup an “imported government.”
Meanwhile, Khan has called on his base to stage countrywide protests to demonstrate that Pakistan is a “zinda qaum,” an “alive nation,” and to reject an “imported” prime minister being imposed on Pakistan. His base has responded in style, taking to the streets in large-scale demonstrations across Pakistan, a country twice the size of California with a population of 210 million. Khan’s toxic nationalist politics has already dangerously polarized the country. Wounded by the parliamentary proceedings, he has now emerged as an even more dangerous loser.
A risky game of chicken, Khan’s strategy rests on confronting Pakistan’s powerful Army with provocative demonstrations of populist support. Though he has called for peaceful protests, Khan has nevertheless baited the country’s generals to act and militarily intervene on his behalf, believing their intervention now would only strengthen his hand. Moreover, while stoking Pakistan’s anti-Americanism domestically, he simultaneously understands that Washington could not endorse any intrusion by the Pakistan Army, particularly a bloody one. Were the Army to take Khan into custody now, it would only make him a political martyr and, ironically, likely secure him Western political support.
As prime minister, Khan took cues from his storied career as a cricketer to run Pakistan like it was a cricket stadium and his government like a cricket game—that is, as a one-man show. Despite losing the parliamentary majority on March 30, he refused to recognize that his Imran Khan-only shambolic governance, mismanagement of the economy, foreign-policy mishaps, and disagreements with his military overlords had crumbled the walls of his political sandcastle.
Instead, he persisted by deploying various schemes to remain in power, including cooking up a narrative of a U.S. conspiracy to evoke Pakistani nationalism and patriotism as a force multiplier, subduing Pakistan’s constitution by blocking a no-confidence vote against him, and trampling the country’s shaky democratic process by dissolving Pakistan’s parliament. Khan even attempted to prolong the parliamentary proceedings to further stir political chaos and possibly to convince Pakistan’s powerful military to declare martial law.
Khan’s maneuvers have thus far proved fruitless, but they might reap rewards over time. Since 1977, Pakistan’s military has played an outsized role in the country’s internal politics through its selection and support of the country’s leaders, shaping the country’s power dynamics. The military has consistently managed to call the shots without firing a shot over the past 45 years.
In Khan’s case, while his political rise and downfall were no accident, the irony of both episodes is rather uncanny. In a widely contested 2018 vote marred by accusations of election engineering, Pakistan’s whiskey-drinking generals groomed Khan into power. Khan used the opportunity to rebrand himself as a populist alternative to Pakistan’s dynastic powerholders.
He used the Army as his political muscle to wrest Pakistan’s politics out of the hands of dynastic elites, mostly through his anti-corruption campaign. Meanwhile, he used his platform to exploit anti-India nationalism to deliver his young, conservative, urban, middle-class constituency to his cause in support of the military. Khan has since developed a significant support base among the military’s officer corps as well as retired military personnel.
As a champion cricketer, Khan played to win, and he played hard. As a politician, those same instincts helped him play the generals and Pakistan’s opportunist politicians. It is likely that Khan aspired from the outset to ultimately push the generals aside, rather than aiming to settle for being their frontman. Cleverly, Khan took advantage of the generals’ narrowly focused view of all prospective threats through an Indian prism, while the real danger to them might have been him.
Nevertheless, while Khan largely delivered on his pledges to the military, every Pakistani military asset has an expiration date—as did Khan. Khan’s original sin was his disagreements with his military overlords—foremost, the dominant Army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa—over various policy and personnel issues.
Of particular importance were Khan’s decision to delay granting Bajwa’s term extension, his battering of both U.S.-Pakistan relations and the country’s ties with Gulf monarchies, his refusal to engage with India, and his blocking against Bajwa’s wishes of the replacement of Khan’s loyal intelligence chief, Gen. Faiz Hameed, who aspires to the Army’s top job. Hameed, who has since been removed as spy chief, might have seen something in Khan’s strategy, or he may have been a co-conspirator to keep him in power, given his willingness to buck the trend of consensus upon which Pakistani generals have long ruled the nation.
By overstepping into the military’s turf, which managed each of these portfolios, Khan committed a major blunder. In time, Pakistan’s divided political opposition interpreted these civil-military tensions as the end of Bajwa’s support for Khan, which allowed the opposition to consolidate and remove Khan in military-endorsed parliamentary proceedings.
While these developments have strained Khan’s relationship with the military, Bajwa has shrewdly navigated the tensions. Without condoning Khan’s accusations of Washington, Bajwa publicly stated that Pakistan shared a long and excellent strategic relationship with the United States. Indeed, even during the tensest periods—and there were many—the generals were always quick to wax nostalgic with their U.S. counterparts about better times defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan and collaborating in the capture of a who’s who list of al Qaeda notables hiding out in Pakistan after 9/11.
But for all Bajwa’s talk of excellent ties with Washington, the transactional nature of that cooperation was not lost on Khan. He leveraged his outspoken support for the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan with his anti-American base on the coattails of the Pakistan Army’s facilitation of that victory. Nor lost on Khan are the restraints preventing the United States from embracing Pakistan’s military leaders, whose record for political intervention and human rights is atrocious and whose support for the Taliban cost some 2,400 American and countless Afghan lives.
What’s more, Khan repeatedly claimed as part of his conspiracy narrative that Washington was against his “independent foreign policy” of seeking closer ties with China and Russia. Khan’s visit to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the day the latter launched his invasion of Ukraine was a reflection of Khan’s decision to move Islamabad away from Washington. Strikingly, despite Khan’s anti-American rhetoric, his government criticized U.S. President Joe Biden’s refusal to speak to his Pakistani counterpart and engage him on important bilateral and regional issues. Khan’s officials warned that “if a phone call is a concession, if a security relationship is a concession, Pakistan has options,” signaling a greater embrace of China and Russia.
In a statement, Moscow defended Khan’s narrative of an American plot against him, slamming Washington for its “shameless interference” in Pakistan and for punishing a “disobedient” Khan. To Khan’s dismay, however, Bajwa publicly condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine—with a caveat. “Pakistan does not believe in camp politics,” Bajwa emphasized, in reference to shifting realignments in America’s great-power competition with China and Russia. He also stressed how Pakistan’s ties with one country were not at the expense of its relationship with others.
While the generals are no friends to the United States, neither do they trust Russia, India’s principal military supplier and longtime ally. They are eager to leverage collaboration with China as a source of financial solvency and security buttress against India, but they prize U.S. arms both for the prestige and as a qualitative advantage against New Delhi. Washington’s weight in defusing the occasional cross-border flare-up is also a useful tool for a country that has fought, and lost, three major wars with its larger neighbor. Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan’s new caretaker prime minister, has indicated he plans to make initial trips to China and Saudi Arabia.
The generals have long played with fire by facilitating regional jihadi groups and encouraging conservative Islamic fervor at home. In doing so, the generals have outdone themselves in franchising militancy. This “fifth column” was viewed as an integral element in Pakistan’s self-defense against a larger and stronger India. Its military leaders aggressively rebuked U.S. counterterrorism operations on Pakistan’s soil as infringements of national sovereignty. They voiced in both public and private how such U.S. actions undermined the generals’ standing in Pakistan and with it their ability to maintain order, and they warned these actions could force their hand in launching a military response against the growing number of militant franchises.
But Bajwa faces potentially tough decisions ahead and might not have the strong hand his predecessors once held. Besides having contributed to the political atmosphere Khan now leverages, Bajwa might have encouraged Khan’s brinkmanship. Bajwa is eager to avoid having to use the Army to suppress a popular revolt owing to a lack of confidence his troops would prevail—or even be reliable—were bloodshed to escalate.
A showdown with supporters of the outlawed and extremist-leaning Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan political party came to a head in November 2021 after the detention of its leader, Saad Rizvi. The Khan government gave in, releasing Rizvi, and allowed the group to participate in mainstream politics. One can only conclude Bajwa was reluctant to direct the Army to take the extreme measures necessary in suppressing the increasingly violent protests. Khan might sense Bajwa will react with the same hesitance against his followers should their demonstration numbers continue to rise or turn destructive.
Despite Khan’s removal from power, he is here to stay. He continues to command greater control and legitimacy over his large conservative and extremist constituency and has no compunction about intensifying his anti-American rhetoric and weaponizing Pakistani nationalism to solidify his base in support of his cause.
More pointedly, the measures Khan undertook during his tenure have provided him with a solid footing. His push to restore Pakistan’s place as a Muslim welfare state that resembles the seventh-century Medina appeals to his conservative base. And the Army’s historic corruption undermines any counterargument. Bajwa’s own record was taken to task by an independent Pakistani journalist who was subsequently subjected to legal attack and death threats after exposing details of the chief of army staff’s family fortune.
Khan has been outspoken about Islamophobia and has supported Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. While condemning Western values as antithetical to Pakistani values, he mainstreamed political Islamism by funding madrassas and introducing a single national curriculum that combined regular and religious schooling. His policies aligned with what the Army has long been doing itself as a means of promoting anti-Indian nationalism and as a recruitment ground for the jihadi groups it supported.
That being said, Pakistani generals, a predominantly Punjabi cadre of practicing but hardly religious Sunni Muslims, have historically bristled at the country’s cyclical episodes of internecine religious violence. Such episodes have the potential to escalate out of control and empower the very fundamentalist, Salafi Sunni elements the Army’s policies long nurtured.
For now, U.S.-Pakistan bilateral ties are replete with challenges. The perennial Pakistani mistrust of Washington as a partner remains a serious issue, and the next Pakistani government will have to figure out the kind of partnership it wants to develop with the United States. Other challenges include Pakistan’s state-directed or tolerated militancy and the exploitation of anti-American nationalism, Pakistan’s deeper embrace of China at the expense of its floundering economy and massive external debt, growing tensions with India, and an unmanageable Afghanistan under the Taliban. Domestically, creating a stable power-sharing arrangement among the new governing coalition is an immediate challenge for Pakistan’s caretaker government to bring some stability, even though the Army would ensure no strong government emerges.
While there is no consensus on these issues among Pakistan’s various internal forces, any Washington-friendly policy deployed by Pakistan’s incoming government could play into Khan’s narrative of an American conspiracy. The generals have likewise boxed themselves in from taking any position that validates Khan’s suggestion that they have acquiesced to U.S. meddling and compromised the nation’s sovereignty. The Army reaps what it sows by having for years played up the false caricature of U.S. intrusion while nurturing violent extremists.
In the immediate term, these problems will make it difficult to get the bilateral relationship back on track. The prevailing political winds may allow for potentially destabilizing outcomes that will reverberate far and wide. While there is no zero-risk approach to dealing with Pakistan, no U.S. security or economic assistance would mitigate Pakistan’s longstanding paranoia about the United States. It’s time the United States reimagine its relationship with the country by testing old assumptions to meaningfully manage Pakistan.
Javid Ahmad is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. He served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2020 to 2021. Twitter: @ahmadjavid
Douglas London is a professor of intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. He is a Russian-speaking operations officer and served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for more than 34 years, mostly in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Africa—including three assignments as a chief of station, including in a former Soviet state. He is the author of The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence. Twitter: @DouglasLondon5
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