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Khan v the generals

February 13, 2024 at 11:40 am

One of the supporter of the convicted former Pakistani Prime Minister Khan, kisses his photo as supporters of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) political party rally as they allege riggings in the general elections and demand the release of the complete results without further delay, in Peshawar, Pakistan on 10 February, 2024 [Hussain Ali/Anadolu Agency]

Pakistan’s election lived up to some expectations, but didn’t live up to other expectations. What was predicted was that there would vote rigging and outright fraud as a central feature of the Pakistani generals’ plan, and there was. What was not anticipated was that former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party, the PTI (Movement for Justice), would win the most parliamentary seats of any single party. It was a miraculous outcome, given the horrendous levels of repression of the PTI, and the efforts by the military establishment to prevent the party from even contesting in the election.

What we know now is that the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, following its violence and terror campaign against the population after Khan was ousted in April 2022, is the proverbial emperor with no clothes. It stands exposed not only for its reign of terror, corruption and fraud, but also for its incompetence by failing to deliver the election results desired by domestic and foreign power centres.

In many ways, perhaps the most analogous relatively recent event was the victory of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council election. The Israelis, the Americans and the Gulf monarchies wanted to give legitimacy to their chosen occupation sub-contractor, the collaborationist and hopelessly corrupt Palestinian Authority (PA) largely controlled by Hamas rival Fatah. These forces believed that they had invested enough financial and political capital to enable Fatah candidates to win an “election under occupation”. To their great surprise — and to the surprise of Hamas, to be fair — the Islamic Resistance Movement won.

Similarly, the military and political elites in Pakistan had guaranteed themselves and their patrons in Washington that the election in Pakistan was a done deal.

This narrative claimed that the appeal of the PTI had diminished, and any remaining popularity of Khan and his political party would be offset by the investment of tens of millions of dollars to buy off the military high command, politicians in all of the provinces and, crucially, the judges of the provincial high courts, as well as the Supreme Court.

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The generals said that they had plan B, and if needed, plan C, ready in case plan A did not work. Plan A was the simple ousting of Khan from power in April 2022. It was thought that this would eradicate the “Khan virus”. To the surprise of many, including Khan himself, a massive, unprecedented outpouring of support erupted spontaneously, with rallies taking place in cities and towns in every province of the country.

So, the military elites began the charge sheet against Khan to get him embroiled in one court case after another: plan B. That failed to work, and Khan’s popularity continued to soar. Incessant reassurances were meted out from former Chief of Army Staff General Bajwa to Washington and the House of Sharif, the family in control of one of the two dominant dynastic political parties, the PML(N). Bajwa claimed that the situation was under control and that his successor, General Asim Munir, would finish the job. Bajwa was lucky. All he agreed to was to remove Khan from power, and he delivered. He was detested, but he was able to leave the political scene after a few months. Munir was not so fortunate.

Plan C needed to be activated. Public sentiment was turning so antagonistic towards the military top brass for their unashamed targeting of Khan that the “final solution” had to be implemented: assassination. Two attempts, one of which injured Khan in the shin, were unsuccessful.

There really was no plan D, and so one was concocted quickly. Khan faced the most absurd but very serious charges of terrorism and treason, and was imprisoned in complete isolation. He was charged with leaking state secrets in the now infamous “cypher-gate” case, with the allegation that he spoke recklessly about a top-secret diplomatic cable sent to the foreign ministry by Pakistan’s ambassador to the US. The cable stated, in no uncertain terms, Washington’s desire that Khan be removed from power.

Both the military elite as well as, sadly, many in the intellectual class, mocked Khan and his supporters for over a year for this “conspiracy theory” and for inventing this “fictional” cypher. Only when the The Intercept confirmed the veracity of the contents of the diplomatic cable as Khan had described them, did Munir and other senior army officers not only concede that such a cypher does exist, but that Khan would now face charges of treason for revealing its contents. This leak by the former prime minister constituted a grave threat to “national security”. In reality, it presented a palpable unmasking of the collusion of the US foreign policy establishment, Pakistani generals and Pakistani kleptocrats of the two major political parties — the House of Sharif and the House of Bhutto-Zardari – in wanting to depose the democratically-elected Khan from power.

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Once the hastily assembled plan D was put in motion, the idea was that it would lead seamlessly to plan E, the ruthless repression of the PTI, so that by the time of this election there would be nothing left of Khan and his party. What the election results last week demonstrated, however, is that even though Khan’s party members could not run on their party ticket and had to run as independents, there is huge popular support for the PTI.

There doesn’t seem to be a plan F, considering the frantic responses of the army chief and the head of the intelligence agencies, or the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Munir is no longer concerned with his big picture “obligations”. He has been reduced to trying to save himself. The only party that he is trying to please at this point is the one footing the bill: the House of Sharif. The general is now arguably the most hated Chief of Staff in Pakistan’s history, and there has been no shortage of competition for that title.

What about Washington’s planners? How are they reacting? One senior State Department official commented very bluntly: “These imbeciles can’t even crush a political novice like Khan. They command one of the largest armed forces in the world, nuclear armed. What is all that for?”

The US foreign policy establishment, after the ouster of Khan, had outsourced the job of managing the old “Af-Pak” (Afghanistan-Pakistan) theatre of the “Global War on Terror” to the Pentagon. Washington believed that its Cold War framework of dealing with the generals would produce a “stable” and pliant Pakistan. There is no entity as irate at the incompetence of the Pakistani military high command as the US Department of Defence, to which both Bajwa and Munir promised the moon. Actually, though, State Department officials are equally incensed since they were tasked to prevaricate for almost two years to conceal Washington’s role, as well as that of Pakistani generals, in this entire scenario.

The State Department had denied any knowledge of the cypher, but that position began to change after the Intercept’s publication of the contents of that damning diplomatic cable. At that point, it was not so much about asserting the non-existence of the cypher, but underscoring how such communication between two governments was nothing abnormal. Washington was willing to give Islamabad a few more months to fix everything by holding faux elections that would quash Khan and his party once and for all.

And now, it seems clear that the US foreign policy establishment is looking for vengeance, and keen on punishing the generals who promised to produce an unashamedly subservient Pakistani political establishment. This is why there has been such an explosion of harsh criticism of the Pakistani army from the State Department and numerous members of Congress.

There were, undoubtedly, members of Congress, such as Representative Ilhan Omar, who wanted to express their displeasure much earlier. But they also acquiesced to their Democratic Party leadership in the White House and in Congress, who hung on by a thread to the idea that “stability” would be brought about by the traditional political and military elites. The White House maintained unceasingly that “our guys” in Islamabad would facilitate a smooth and relatively quiet transition to the post-Khan period, without ringing any international alarm bells.

Of course, now it’s become patently obvious that Washington is revising its stance radically, one that effectively tells Pakistan’s generals, “You had your chance, you failed, and now you’re making things worse.” America’s 180-degree turnaround is an attempt to salvage some respect, or at least some tolerance, from the people of Pakistan who know full well Washington’s role in the regime change operation. The generals have put Washington in a deeply embarrassing situation.

However, Washington apparatchiks may be unfair in their treatment of their clients in khaki in Pakistan. The former do not realise that it’s the political has-beens who the generals can control, not the relative new boys on the block like Khan. The old political bigwigs know the rules of the game — proper balance between the enrichment of both the political and military elites — and abide by them. The newbies are too recalcitrant to even learn those rules properly, let alone abide by them. In sum, Washington now considers General Munir a dreadful liability, after only his first year as Chief of Staff, unlike General Pervez Musharraf, who provided Washington with “stability in Pakistan” for eight years until he also became a liability in 2007.

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In this entire saga, what’s been truly disappointing is the role of the Pakistani media. The country’s leading and, deservedly, most respected periodical, Dawn, suddenly began to churn out columns praising the democratic “defiance” of the people in this election. It’s a shame that the people’s defiance was not covered over the past twenty months, when apparently it was simply an expression of a cult-following, and the totalitarian and conspicuously undemocratic repression was not worth reporting. The resistance of the Pakistani people could have certainly benefited from some coverage then. Now, such voices in the media are commonplace. It’s rather sad how the Pakistani media seems to be taking its cues from the US State Department about when to cover/report, and when not to. Dawn columnists had many months to praise the democratic will of the people, but did not.

At this point, the divisions within the military officer corps have become evident. Munir and others in the top brass realise how dangerous it is to give the wrong orders to junior officers and soldiers. How many times will the Pakistani armed forces be commanded to open fire, imprison, torture and disappear their population on a massive scale? The crimes of the military establishment in the provinces of Balochistan and KPK have been bad enough.

For almost two years now, the brutal suppression by the army was meant to instil paralysing trepidation in the population. But just as the people of Gaza, of Palestine, of West Asia, have overcome a psychological sense of fear of Israel, so too have the people of Pakistan lost any fear of their national security state and its violent shenanigans. This is a major development.

Whatever political configuration emerges after the election, one thing is certain: this round has been a resounding victory for former Prime Minister Imran Khan, smiling in his wretched jail cell, as well as the people of Pakistan, regardless of their political affiliation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.