Politicians in Pakistan rise to power and fall from grace with alarming regularity, so much so that not a single prime minister has ever completed a full term in office. The one constant has been the genuine love and affection ordinary people have for the military. However, that could be about to change now that some inconvenient truths are beginning to surface in the increasingly clumsy attempts to silence Imran Khan.
Unlike some of his predecessors, the former prime minister and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader cannot be bought off or controlled by army chiefs and that makes him very dangerous, especially in the eyes of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency and its allies in the US. Hence, the recent accusations of Washington meddling to destabilise and oust the universally admired cricketer-turned-politician.
The truth is that the senior ranks of the Pakistan military and, in particular, its intelligence branch the ISI, are not interested in the common good of the people. This corrupt institution has, over the years, exploited, repressed, disappeared and even killed innocent people in order to pursue its own agenda of raking in more power, money and influence both at home and overseas. Popular movements or dissent in Pakistan which seek justice and equality for the working classes have either been controlled or crushed ruthlessly. Even many of the once admired judiciary and media, thought to be truly independent in Pakistan, have been coerced, controlled and corrupted by senior army officers. Those refusing to comply are simply disappeared, or jailed and tortured.
Pakistan’s military is now probably the most corrupt institution in the country, and it ensures its stability and long-term future through extremely generous pensions to its officer class. Paying those enormous pensions is no great hardship either, because the army is the nation’s biggest property developer. Among its large holdings and portfolios is a 35 square kilometre prime seafront zone in Karachi. Several large trusts are also run by the army and assets are counted in billions rather than millions of dollars.
The corruption was widespread under Pakistan’s military ruler General Zia Al-Haq (1924-1988), who enabled the ISI to flourish under the leadership of General Akhtar Abdul Rahman. The latter saw his beloved intelligence service expand from 2,000 staff in 1978 to 40,000 within ten years, enjoying a billion-dollar budget by 1988. Corrupt politicians and public administrators also grew wealthy on its ever-expanding payroll.
Today Pakistan is a nuclear power but stands on the brink of disaster as Imran Khan pursues truth and justice while the military enforces power and privilege. If left to their own devices my money is on Khan and the extraordinary masses representing people power, but will the rest of the world, especially the West, stand by and resist the urge to interfere?
Pakistan has often been described by critics as the most dangerous nation on earth, probably because it has the fastest growing nuclear weapons programme, along with intermediate-range ballistic missiles and US-supplied F16 fighter jets, and it is still developing tactical nuclear weapons. With two other nuclear powers as neighbours — China and India — and its close proximity to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the stability of the country is monitored rigorously by outsiders.
Potential instability is bound to send waves of fear around the corridors of power, but will the world allow a democratic coup to take place in the 75-year-old country? I hope for the sake of the Pakistani people that democracy will win in the end.
Moreover, it’s not just the military that has manipulated, coerced and controlled public opinion over the years in Pakistan; the local media has also played its part, with corrupt owners of newspapers, TV and other media outlets developing intimate relationships with the state. Challenging truth to power is only seen when the media maintains a healthy distance from the rulers. Sadly, those who’ve rubbed shoulders with the high and mighty have become nothing more than useful idiots by shamelessly dishing out disinformation and lies.
Now the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), has imposed a ban on live broadcasts of Imran Khan’s speeches with immediate effect. The move comes after the former prime minister criticised police and other state institutions in a robust speech in Islamabad over the weekend. PEMRA accused Khan of spreading hate speech against state institutions and officers. Privately-owned ARY News was also taken off air for its allegedly “false, hateful and seditious” content.
Khan’s right-hand man Shahbaz Khan is PTI’s President in Britain. He told me that media houses and journalists are being threatened and banned in Pakistan and some journalists have fled the country or gone into hiding. “This is very much an attack on freedom of speech under the garb of protecting the state,” he said.
Accusing the current government and authorities of dirty tricks, he added that the former prime minister’s public criticism came after his chief of staff was arrested for alleged incitement of “revolt in the army ranks which is high treason and carries the death penalty.” Shahbaz Gill was detained after he told ARY News that there were attempts to create hatred against the PTI among the middle and lower ranks of the military, who he said loved the party. The junior ranks were, he claimed, coming under pressure from army chiefs to abandon support for the PTI. This prompted Gill to urge them to reconsider following orders that were against their principles.
Addressing a rally in Islamabad, Imran Khan said that his party colleague had been tortured in custody. When Gill emerged in public for his court hearing it was from the back of an ambulance, in a wheelchair and in a highly distressed state.
The dramatic scenes outside the court prompted Khan to make a scathing speech singling out the police and the judge for criticism. He also threatened to file cases against those responsible for allegedly torturing Gill who was arrested on 9 August to face charges of sedition. Khan maintains that the charges against the senior PTI figure are part of a conspiracy to put his party on a collision course with the military top brass.
Federal Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah rejected the torture allegations, accusing Khan and his party of lying. “I can confirm as the interior minister that no torture was carried out against Gill,” said Sanaullah, who is in the Muslim League (Nawaz) party. At a press conference on Sunday, the minister accused Khan of running an “anti-state agenda”.
Islamabad police have also rejected Khan’s torture allegation and warned that anybody “threatening the police or making false accusations will be dealt with according to the law.” The police tweeted that its officers would continue to perform their duties “diligently”. Call me a cynic, but they would say that wouldn’t they?
Millions of Pakistanis left their homes in April to support Khan at a series of nationwide rallies after he was removed from office in a “no confidence vote”. Khan has always blamed the US for his removal and even named those in Washington behind his downfall.
At the time of writing, Imran Khan was charged under anti-terrorism legislation for the speech in which he directed his ire at the police and a female judge. Hundreds of his supporters are now rallying outside his hilltop mansion in Islamabad vowing to prevent his arrest.
The protesters chanted slogans against the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, brother of the jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who took over after Khan was ousted in April. Quite what the US is making of all of this is a mystery, but we can be sure that there will be an open line between Washington and Islamabad.
Back in 1999 Shehbaz Sharif flew to Washington and begged the Bill Clinton administration to intervene when it appeared that the then Army Chief of Staff, General Pervez Musharraf, was planning a coup to oust his brother Nawaz. The coup took place and it wouldn’t surprise me if Washington had given the general a helping hand. He was, after all, instrumental in helping the US usher in the Global War on Terror, a move unpopular with many in Pakistan at the time, although the instinctive support for the military remained intact.
I believe, though, that such support is now on the wane, and while criticism of army chiefs was once regarded as a red line, it seems that many are prepared to cross it today. Pakistan has been ruled by the military for roughly half its existence, but it looks as if the love affair between the army and the people is coming to an end; the people of Pakistan are convinced that Shehbaz Sharif and the army have conspired with the US to remove Khan from power. Predictably, all three have denied the allegation.
As the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln once said: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Lincoln was president from 1861 until his assassination in 1865. It certainly seems as if ordinary Pakistanis won’t be fooled again, so I sincerely hope that the same fate does not befall Imran Khan.
This article was updated on 23 August 2022 at 12.45 to correct the name of the PTI President in Britain