Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Pakistan’s Military Is Afraid of Imran Khan

The former prime minister has turned against the force that once supported him.

Ibrahim-Azeem-foreign-policy-columnist11
Ibrahim-Azeem-foreign-policy-columnist11
Azeem Ibrahim
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
Frontier Constabulary personnel detains a supporter of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Frontier Constabulary personnel detains a supporter of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Frontier Constabulary personnel detains a supporter of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at a protest in Islamabad on November 4. Ghulam Rasool/AFP via Getty Images

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was shot in the leg by an unknown assailant as he attended a protest march on Thursday. The attack, which Khan’s supporters are calling an attempted assassination, represents yet another dark and dangerous day for Pakistani politics. Khan was ejected from office in April through democratic proceedings he and his supporters argued were illegitimate. Last month, Pakistan’s election commission disqualified Khan from holding public office for failing to declare expensive gifts—including a Rolex watch—from foreign dignitaries; Khan’s lawyers have called the move politically motivated.

Khan was once seen as having the backing of the country’s all-powerful military. But now out of office, he has emerged in recent months as a leading critic of the army, which has often ruled the country directly and exerts a powerful grip even in times of nominal civilian control. Khan was once a known quantity in the complex military-political arrangements that run Pakistan. His latest turn has made him something different—and more unpredictable. (Disclosure: I have advised Khan in the past, but our relationship ended in 2013.)

Khan has been holding mass rallies and demonstrations against military rule. The livestreams of his speeches were so popular that in the end, the government attempted to ban them on dubious pretenses. Although it’s unclear who shot Khan, his supporters see it as the latest move in a long campaign of harassment against him since he left office. Khan has accused the government of being behind the plot.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was shot in the leg by an unknown assailant as he attended a protest march on Thursday. The attack, which Khan’s supporters are calling an attempted assassination, represents yet another dark and dangerous day for Pakistani politics. Khan was ejected from office in April through democratic proceedings he and his supporters argued were illegitimate. Last month, Pakistan’s election commission disqualified Khan from holding public office for failing to declare expensive gifts—including a Rolex watch—from foreign dignitaries; Khan’s lawyers have called the move politically motivated.

Khan was once seen as having the backing of the country’s all-powerful military. But now out of office, he has emerged in recent months as a leading critic of the army, which has often ruled the country directly and exerts a powerful grip even in times of nominal civilian control. Khan was once a known quantity in the complex military-political arrangements that run Pakistan. His latest turn has made him something different—and more unpredictable. (Disclosure: I have advised Khan in the past, but our relationship ended in 2013.)

Khan has been holding mass rallies and demonstrations against military rule. The livestreams of his speeches were so popular that in the end, the government attempted to ban them on dubious pretenses. Although it’s unclear who shot Khan, his supporters see it as the latest move in a long campaign of harassment against him since he left office. Khan has accused the government of being behind the plot.

They may well be right. Everyone in Pakistan knows the rules of the game, most critically to remain silent about the extent of the military’s control over politics—rules that Khan once followed but has broken continually since he was ejected from office.

Khan rose to power himself playing the game. When in office, out of necessity, he was the army’s man. Khan entered politics as a reformer, but he was compromised by his contact with the system. He attained office when former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was impeached, and his successor, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, did not fit the military’s needs. In office, Khan towed the military line: He supported Beijing’s massive Belt and Road Initiative investments in Pakistan and spent much time chastising the West for its apparent impiety. The military favors China, and so, in office, did Khan.

But now, however late, he is tackling the bitter reality of military-compromised politics head-on. Khan expresses a fundamental truth: one in which the Pakistan Army is a political constituency and an economic force. The military owns cement plants and cereal factories, and it is involved in every major infrastructure project in the country. No one, including Khan himself, can rise to high office without military support or keep power without the armed forces’ endorsement.

But this is threatened now by Khan—so much so that even though the army’s new man, Shehbaz Sharif, is prime minister, he now finds himself no more than the mayor of Islamabad as Khan and his party control Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Gilgit-Baltistan. The government’s resources are limited. In Pakistan, as in other countries, inflation has rocketed, and the impact of devastating recent floods have given the government no fiscal room to bribe the electorate.

All political leaders since the Partition of India 75 years ago have needed tactical support from the military, without which they weren’t able to rise and often fell. But this is now changing. Khan’s party is national, not regional. It is more organically popular—if the attendance of his rallies and the numbers and diversity he attracts on social media and livestreams can count for anything—than the military and governing coalition. Khan’s popularity is great enough to threaten the military even if it has its man in power.

The military had guessed that Khan, once out of office, would follow the rules and know when his career was over. After all, Khan, a brilliant cricketer, is a rich and famous man who enjoyed the lifestyle of an international celebrity before he entered politics. Some people in the military may have thought that Khan would leave Pakistan if defeated, disappearing back to the world of the global rich.

But instead, Khan used his celebrity and social media presence to campaign against the foundations of the Pakistani state: unswerving loyalty to the military and acquiescence to the kind of compromised politics the army forces on the country.

In a series of barnstorming speeches across the country, Khan called for new elections. These speeches clearly worried those in power because Pakistan’s media regulator banned them from being broadcast on Aug. 21 before a court rescinded the decision the following week.

Khan has been charged with terrorism offenses for threatening police officers and a judge. One of Khan’s lieutenants, Shahbaz Gill, a former member of Khan’s cabinet, was arrested on Aug. 9 on charges of sedition. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party alleged that Gill was tortured by the Islamabad police after his arrest.

In his speeches, Khan has called for real democracy and true government in parliament. He has demanded free elections without vote-rigging. He has campaigned against bribery—a practice that remains at the heart of Pakistani politics.

And Khan has scared the establishment by the way he has campaigned using social media and livestreams—something the military cannot control as easily as television and radio. He has used tools the generals do not understand.

Pakistan is a country of the young. Roughly 64 percent of Pakistan’s population are under age 30. Khan may be 70 years old, but he appeals to the young through their own favorite media, and the generals are running out of ways to silence him.

The Pakistani military does not have tanks blocking the streets, as might take place in other nascent authoritarian states. But its police set up a cordon around Khan’s home this year, trying to bottle him in. Hundreds of his supporters mobilized to prevent it.

Political violence is a global concern. Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif was killed in Kenya last month in what was initially claimed to be a case of mistaken identity. Many people allege that this was in fact a political assassination.

The attack on Khan was an attempt on the life of one of the most popular leaders in Pakistan’s history. It demonstrates growing authoritarianism in the country.

There are now two likely outcomes: a more overt military takeover, which would set the country back decades, or free and fair elections, which would likely (if recent local and by-elections are a good guide) result in a win for Khan. The status quo, with Khan free to campaign, is too dangerous and destabilizing for the military’s power.

Khan’s political party has also broken dynastic politics, perhaps laying the groundwork for new ones that will be harder for the military to control. Pakistan’s politics has been dominated by political families or close-knit political tribes—more than one Sharif has been prime minister this century, and most political leaders have military and machine-political backing. Khan has long claimed that he has put himself at risk in opposing this status quo. With the attempt on his life today, this grim prediction has now come true.

How the military plays its next hand will determine whether it remains a respected institution (retaining its enormous economic and social influence over the country) or is forced out of the public square and into its barracks.

This is not just an internal Pakistani question. Pakistan is a long-standing ally and partner of the West. How the West responds now will help define the next decade of Pakistan’s political life. A democratic partner—even one with often fiery anti-Western language like Khan—is a better choice than an autocracy.

The military’s allies on Pakistani TV have begun banging the drum of a state of emergency, saying they need to step in to save the country. But the public will no longer buy what they’re selling. It is up to the West to say for it, too, a coup would be unacceptable

Azeem Ibrahim is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
Twitter: @azeemibrahim

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.