Last week, Imran Khan became the latest prime minister in Pakistan’s history to exit office in less than palatable circumstances. His ouster came following weeks of a political drama that involved heightened tensions about a vote of no confidence following a loss of confidence by members of his coalition as they dumped his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, which denied him enough votes to defeat the opposition’s planned no confidence vote. He defiantly got the president to suspend parliament in order or prevent the vote from taking place but the Supreme Court’s landmark verdict late on Thursday restored a parliament that Khan had sought to disband and mandated the vote that he sought to avoid.
Khan came to power in 2018 against the backdrop of anti-establishment rhetoric, presenting himself as an outsider who cares about poor people, ordinary Muslims and an independent foreign policy. The military’s decision to cast its lot with him in that year’s elections makes for a very curious case whose facts are not all presented. Pakistan has a very complex political environment in which the military has an outsized influence. It is a praetorian state which believes that civilians cannot be trusted to govern and needs the military’s incursion into purely civic matters as well–a solution that stops short of a complete military takeover.
Praetorianism according to a Columbia monthly journal in 1999, implies the exercise of independent political power by a military community which can either use or threaten to use the instrument of violence against the citizenry. In a sense, the military evolves into an entity to manage threats to legitimate authority in a country. In reality, this is possible only in underdeveloped countries which are characterised by poverty, illiteracy, weak middle class, absence of strong political parties, nascent stages of administrative evolution, and dichotomy between tradition and modernity. In Pakistan, this rather strange arrangement is evident from increasing military involvement in wide-ranging administrative activities, from managing essential services and monitoring state-owned schools to conducting the census and building non-military roads.
Today, the military, under democratic governance, has a wider and deeper participation in civil administration than it had during the martial law regimes. As a result, two processes are simultaneously taking shape: the militarisation of civil society and the civilisation of the military community.
The above is important because Imran Khan’s woes as prime Minister didn’t reach a crescendo until the military indicated that it would take a neutral stance on Khan’s travails–a stance that is akin to a rejection of the prime Minister. At a security forum in Islamabad the week before the vote, chief of Army staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine in no uncertain terms, describing it as an “invasion” and “aggression against a smaller country that cannot be condoned.”. Such a position would not have been controversial had they not contradicted the official position of Pakistan’s civilian government then led by Khan.
On Feb. 24, Khan became the first Pakistani prime minister in almost 23 years to make a state visit to Russia, hoping to finalise an agreement over a vital gas pipeline project that has been years in the making. The timing, though, was momentous for another reason: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had announced the start of the invasion of Ukraine. Days later, Pakistan—along with China, India and dozens of other countries—abstained from voting on the United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion.
Both Khan’s visit and Pakistan’s U.N. abstention were roundly criticised within Pakistan and outside the country. Many saw the meeting with Putin, in particular, as ill-advised, because of how it could be viewed as an endorsement of the invasion of Ukraine. Some Pakistani commentators, one journalist often considered to be an informal mouthpiece for the army leadership, alleged that Khan was trying to join an “anti-Western” China-Russia bloc. Pakistan has carefully built ties with Russia since 2011, allowing Islamabad to exploit contradictions in India’s foreign policy without directly antagonising the West. Russia is India’s long-time partner and a major supplier of defence hardware. But India is also increasingly aligning with the United States. By engaging with Russia, Pakistan hopes to demonstrate that it, too, can maintain a diverse portfolio of partnerships, and also that burgeoning U.S.-India ties will not be without cost to New Delhi and Washington.
The army chief’s position was not only a contradiction to Khan’s government, but also fuelled the latter’s suspicion foreign influence, especially from the United States, was responsible for his ouster. A few hours before the vote at the UN, the heads of 22 diplomatic missions, including those of European Union member states, released a joint letter urging Pakistan to support a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The move to release the letter publicly was rare. Imran Khan fired back by asking “are we your slaves?” during a political rally. He was mostly incensed that the West had not extended the same prompt to India which had, since before the war, indicated its position of neutrality and went out of its way to get a sanctions waiver to import fertilisers from Russia.
To get a clear context of the merit of his allegations that foreign influence is behind his ouster, Khan must be seen as a product of Pakistan’s foreign policy duplicity in its engagement with the West. Pakistan-American relations have been turbulent, often carried out within the confines of strategic imperatives in the Asia Pacific, and the global war against terror. Matters came to a head when American forces killed Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in a neighbourhood in Pakistan in 2011, a clandestine operation it carried out without informing its “ally” Pakistan. It was from that moment Pakistan began to pursue its strategic ties with Russia, and given India’s growing cooperation with the US, Pakistan had hoped to counterbalance such relations with America’s geopolitical rivals China and Russia.
Khan’s invocation of foreign meddling, if it is worth any introspection, cannot be divorced from this reality. It is also not outlandish to mention the US’ regime change activities that have a long and colourful history this century. It has actively worked to remove sitting heads of governments antithetical to its interests, at worst, and looked on in a neutral manner at worst. The fall of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011 encapsulates this fact. In the same year, the United States publicly called for the removal of Muammar Gaddaffi from power in Libya and led a NATO mission to achieve its regime change goal in the country.
Over the past few years, that winning streak has been hit by strings of failures in North Korea, Iran and Venezuela–all products of a policy which sometimes backfires. Although the extent of American involvement in the July 2016 coup in Turkey is unknown, the damage caused by remote association is enough to cause significant damage to state relations. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been unwavering in his belief that the United States was behind the failed coup, a position reinforced by Washington’s eerie and curious silence when the coup was taking place and the few days after it, as well as its refusal to extradite to Turkey Fethullah Gulen, an influential cleric (and Erdogan’s former friend) who Erdogan blames as the mastermind behind the coup attempt.
And despite then vice president Joe Biden’s rush to Ankara days after the coup to assure Erdogan of American support, the damage has been done. It charged Turkey’s resolve to seek an independent course from NATO and the US, and ramped up Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system much to the chagrin of America’s defence establishment who would have the US government respond by kicking Turkey out of NATO but who only responded by ending the bilateral cooperation on the development of F-35 fighter jets.
America’s silence since this accusation is instructive. It has yet to put out a definite statement of rebuttal of Khan’s theories. No one more than the US would welcome a reset in relations with a strategic partner like Pakistan who bears as much responsibility for Afghanistan as its neighbours in Central Asia. For the United States to engage the Taliban, it needs a stable government in Islamabad friendly to American interests. But for much of Eastern Europe and Asia, and even in the Quadrilateral Alliance (the QUAD), the notion that the United States sponsored a covert regime change not far from its borders would send bad signals. China and North Korea are already used to such ideas, but not so for India, a country whose prime minister Narendra Modi has also sought to pursue a more independent foreign policy which sometimes brings it to conflict with the US.
What this may ultimately lead to, is perhaps a less than united front against China. Part of Washington’s grievances with Pakistan is the latter’s gravitational pull towards Beijing’s economic orbit. However, with Khan gone, there is no guarantee that this would change in the short term. It may also not change in the medium term given how very cyclical Pakistani politics is, and as such, next year’s general elections might have a different government that may tow a different path similar to Khan’s. Or it may be Khan himself who also has the advantage of pulling enough support to return to power given his fertile political base.
A month ago, people were abusing Khan and the PTI government for inflation. Now, they say he’s stood up for a proud and independent Pakistan.