Is Pakistan embarking on its own version of the Arab Spring? The incredible scenes of people power from Peshawar to Islamabad, Lahore to Karachi and beyond suggest that 227 million Pakistanis are on the brink of something momentous. If so, they could smash dynastic Pakistani politics forever.
Recently ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan has been trying for years to break the political mould which has seen two dynasties, mired in corruption, rule Pakistan more or less since its creation after the partition of India in 1947. And he seemed to be succeeding in leading the nation down a different path, gradually distancing the country from the US and other western influences while getting closer to China and Russia.
Little wonder, then, that when Khan announced his visit to Russia on 24 February there were angry exchanges during high-level phone calls between Islamabad and Washington when he refused to cancel the trip. By an unfortunate coincidence, that was the day Russia invaded Ukraine; as Khan was laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russian troops were crossing the border.
So when the charismatic Pakistani leader exposed US meddling in the affairs of his country as he fought to stave off a no-confidence vote in parliament last month, I believed him. Having met and interviewed Khan on several occasions over the years I know that he is a pragmatist and not easily given to histrionics or wild conspiracy theories. His “absolutely not” response last year to the notion of the US military using or renting Pakistan’s military bases along the porous border with Afghanistan, will have rattled Washington. If he says that the US is meddling in Pakistani politics, he should be taken seriously.
The former world-class cricketer and national hero is convinced that his removal has been orchestrated by dark forces, a euphemism for the CIA and other US agencies. This will no doubt play well among ordinary Pakistanis who thrive on conspiracy theories. However, I happen to believe that there is some merit to Khan’s astonishing claims.
America interferes in the internal affairs of countries all over the world and has done for decades. With government archives opening up we are beginning to learn about the massive scale of US and British involvement in regime changes. In 1999, astonishingly, the then US President Bill Clinton even apologised for America’s four decades of interference in Guatemala. American money funded the training of Guatemalan forces which committed acts of genocide against Mayans, as well as other human rights abuses from 1960 onwards.
The presidential apology came about after a report from the Historical Clarification Commission confirmed the CIA’s participation in a war that killed more than 200,000 civilians who were kidnapped and tortured before being executed. Clinton pledged that the US would no longer involve itself in repressive campaigns, but at the turn of the millennium, George W Bush launched the war on terror and thousands more people were kidnapped, renditioned and tortured.Before the large-scale interference in South American politics, the US and Britain were behind the 1953 coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. The CIA confessed in 2013 to its role in the toppling of Mosaddegh and his government. America’s addiction to oil and pathological hatred of communism were both cited as reasons for the interference.
When Mosaddegh announced in 1951 that he was going to nationalise the country’s oil industry, it was as incendiary then as Imran Khan’s “absolutely not” moment in June 2021 that he would not have the US military operating on Pakistani territory.
The US is now using crippling sanctions against both Iran and Afghanistan, two countries that will never submit to any form of American threats, so it’s perfectly conceivable that neighbouring Pakistan could also be targeted for displaying similar anti-US sentiment. Plotting Imran Khan’s ouster, as has been alleged, was probably easier than coming up with a bogus excuse for sanctions. Moreover, the US needs to have troops in the region now that it has lost control of all the military bases in Afghanistan; what better, therefore, than to have a much more compliant regime in place in Islamabad?
There are elements in the Pakistan military that are pro-Western and this also caused tension when Khan sought to replace a number of senior officers. I remember interviewing the legendary former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), General Hamid Gul, at his home in Rawalpindi both in 2001 and again in 2008.
He told me that the US meddled in Pakistan’s affairs whenever it could and even had influence over the appointment of the army chief of staff, which is why, he explained, he was never considered for the post. Sour grapes? Possibly. But Gul was a big supporter of the Taliban and it’s no secret that the ISI maintained relations with the movement during the 20-year US occupation of Afghanistan.
On Friday evening, 15 April, the Pakistan military engaged in simultaneous air strikes in the north-eastern Kunar and south-eastern Khost provinces of Afghanistan, which are remote areas sharing a close border with Pakistan. These strikes, in which innocent civilians died, should be seen as a direct consequence of Imran Khan’s ousting as prime minister of Pakistan. He would never have allowed this to happen on his watch.
I was in Kunar the day before the attack, helping to distribute Ramadan food parcels to ordinary Afghanis suffering unprecedented hardship and hunger under US sanctions. One woman told me that at least there was peace, even if food is scarce, but it seems that the good people of that province aren’t even going to be allowed that shred of comfort.
I believe that Khan was working towards restoring good relations with Afghanistan under the ruling Taliban, which would be yet another reason for the US to opt for regime change in Islamabad. America may have ended its occupation in the region, but it is still interfering on the ground. It just can’t break the dirty habit of a lifetime. However, this time, US meddling in another country’s internal affairs could backfire seriously.
The people of Pakistan do not like outsiders interfering in their affairs and the ouster of Khan is fuelling and reviving long-held anti-American sentiment across the country. The massive gatherings (“jalsas”) of Khan’s supporters are signs that the Pakistani people are fed up and want to shape a new political landscape. We could be witnessing Pakistan’s own version of the Arab awakening.
The toppling of Khan and the return of the Sharif and Bhutto dynasties in Pakistan’s politics is not the end of an era, but the beginning of a new phase in the country’s tumultuous political landscape. Are we about to see springtime in Islamabad and the return of Khan? Is the former cricketing hero turned politician now on the threshold of becoming a revolutionary leader as well? For the sake of the poor people of Afghanistan already subjected to the bombs of Khan’s successor, as well as the people of Pakistan who deserve much better than endless political instability, I really hope so.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.