Imran Khan Vs Military Establishment: The Final Showdown Begins?

The ugly scenes of excessive shelling, PTI workers pelting stones at the police force and the eventual incapacity of the government to arrest former prime minister Imran Khan — summoned by a court in Islamabad — indicate a deep crisis within the Pakistani state itself. The partisan views may blame one party or the other, but at the end of the day, the inability of law enforcing agencies to uphold the writ of the state is a serious question to be addressed. Former PM Imran Khan says his life is in danger, and that he may be assassinated by the deep state. He is wanted in dozens of cases, some of which are evidently political, but a few relate to his conduct both as a politician and as the chief executive for more than three years.

There are five alarming signs that require a serious reflection by those who rule from Rawalpindi and Islamabad. First, is there a clarity and unity of purpose between different interest groups within the establishment, as to how they want to tackle a popular leader who is increasingly becoming unacceptable from a realpolitik perspective? If the purpose is to give him a roughshod treatment like the previous prime ministers, then the methods chosen are ineffective.

Second, the apparent confusion in the ranks of the lower and superior courts — and the divisions therein — reflect the fast-eroding credibility of the judiciary as a fair and non-partisan arbiter of legal and political disputes. As former PM Imran Khan was evading his arrest, his legal teams approached different courts in different jurisdictions, resulting in a variety of orders that ended up contradicting each other.

Third, as the Zaman Park grand show of ‘defiance’ continues in Lahore, the peripheral areas of Pakistan continue to wonder if they are citizens of the same country as Mr. Khan, or not. Social media posts were replete with this complaint: what if Mr. Khan hailed from a smaller province? Would he receive the same preferential treatment? Considering that a sitting MNA, Ali Wazir, was incarcerated for more than two years simply for naming the then-army chief General Bajwa and the flawed policies of his institution.

Fourth, the role of mainstream news media which treated the Zaman Park standoff as a video game that merited a sensational treatment without informing the public that compliance of court warrants — howsoever controversial — is mandatory.

Finally, beating policemen as an act of resistance sans ideology and in service of cults — religious or secular — has become a standard practice since the Faizabad dharna that was orchestrated by the deep state in 2017. After Faizabad, the civilian authority was made to surrender before a mob, the judges who took notice of it were hounded. What Mr. Khan and his supporters were doing during the past few days will be replicated by other political groups in the future, and Mr. Khan should be warned that if he returns to power, he would face similar acts of ‘defiance’.

In short, this erosion of the state’s writ has been perpetrated by the state actors themselves. Unlike other cases of failed states where non-state actors gain ground, or the state loses its legitimacy altogether, here is a scenario where infighting within the state institutions is producing outcomes that resemble anarchy. Rarely have states themselves created conditions for their undoing in such a manner.

Even the case of much-publicized right-wing populism widely cited with reference to the rise of PTI merits serious deliberation. Unlike other countries where populists have captured power through organized political movements, our version owes its success to the heroic efforts of the deep state, and at least four chiefs of the ISI, in manufacturing the narrative, objective conditions, and institutional support mechanisms. Without General Pasha’s support, would PTI’s ‘historic’ 2011 rally in Lahore ever have become a turning point in recent history? Or without the ‘good offices’ of General Zaheer-ul-Islam, would the 2014 dharna have persevered for 126 days? Or without the interventions of General Faiz in ‘fixing’ his political opponents, would Khan ever have been selected into power? Even after his ouster in 2022, without the tacit support of some powerful actors, would Khan have been able to continue his mobilization and divisive politics with impunity?

To be fair to Mr. Khan, he was not the first or the last project. Earlier, Nawaz Sharif in the 1980s, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1960s, were propped up by the miltablishment. But this time, their bold experiment has turned out to be far more effective, as Imran Khan’s appeal to the middle class is deeply seductive, and now resonates among the ranks within key pillars of the state. The social classes that inhabit unelected institutions share Mr. Khan’s weltanschauung which comprises exhibitions of public religiosity, hatred for traditional political elites, citing ‘corruption’ as the biggest issue, and a convenient, varying dose of anti-Americanism. This is why Mr. Khan is a formidable foe for the ancien regime. He is their creature and nemesis at the same time.

In an interview given to the Voice of America (VOA), Khan did not hesitate to allude to the incumbent army chief as responsible for his present predicament. After calling for the court martial of the previous chief General Bajwa, Khan has now upped his game in a war of nerves. Whether the top man will relent, or make a bargain with Khan, or consider this moment as the point of no return, remains to be seen. Mr. Khan’s confidence in his current strategy seems to be working. Faced with a favourable judiciary and a divided house, discredited political rivals, and a maverick media stratagem, he seems poised for a return to power. Even if he is disqualified, chances of which remain high, he would be calling the shots if and when a general election is held.

The crisis engineered by the miltablishment has come full circle. The conditions for a systemic crash are ripe.

The author is Editor, The Friday Times and founder of Naya Daur Media. Earlier, he was editor, Daily Times and a broadcaster with Express News and Capital TV. His writings are archived at