Imran Khan’s face off With Pakistan army escalates after arrest

Imran Khan’s face off With Pakistan army escalates after arrest

ISLAMABAD: Since his ouster as prime minister last year, Imran Khan has played a high-stakes game of challenging Pakistan’s powerful military. Now it’s reaching a breaking point.
Khan’s dramatic arrest by dozens of paramilitary rangers last week for graft triggered protests that left at least eight people dead and hundreds injured, risking more spasms of violence in a nation struggling to pull back from economic collapse. By detaining the former premier, Pakistani authorities have drawn a line in the sand: Khan is an outcast in the eyes of the state, including among former army allies, and many are increasingly ready to bear the consequences of stopping him.

“This is a very fragile moment,” said Avinash Paliwal, the deputy director of the South Asia Institute at SOAS University of London. “What will happen to Khan really depends on two factors: how enduring the protesters are in their drive to support who they see as their leader, and how much force the army is willing to use to crush dissent.”
Though Pakistan’s top court ordered Khan’s release, calling the nature of his arrest illegal, and the Islamabad High Court later granted him bail in the land graft case, the former leader’s fate is far from certain even as he’s seeking preemptive bail in the dozens of other cases he faces.


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His detention marks a climactic moment after months of bitter public sparring with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government and the military. The political crisis comes as Pakistan is grappling with its worst economic crisis in years. Record inflation, scant currency reserves and a still-delayed bailout from the International Monetary Fund are among the South Asian nation’s challenges.
The army didn’t respond to an email and several text messages seeking comments for this story.
Sparring with the Generals
But it’s Khan’s falling out with Pakistan’s army that could ultimately decide his political fate, and whether he’ll have the ability to contest elections expected in the fall. Though the military was seen as instrumental in bringing Khan to power in 2018, relations soured in late 2021 when Khan tried to block the removal of a favored general from his post as head of its spy wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
A few months later, in April 2022, Khan was removed as prime minister in a no-confidence vote. He accused Sharif and other politicians of conspiring with former army leader General Qamar Javed Bajwa to topple his government, saying — without evidence — that it was because he had been critical of the US and was seeking closer ties with Russia and China.
Khan also claimed — once again without offering proof — that Sharif’s government and a senior general were behind a shooting attack at a street protest in November that left him with a leg injury. That allegation was also rebuffed.
Pakistan’s military has long held sway in the country, ruling directly for 32 of the 76 years since independence and backing many of its civilian regimes. Though the army vowed last year to stay out of politics in a surprising admission of past involvement, Khan’s arrest now casts doubt on that promise.
“It’s not necessarily the political government which is removing him,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a researcher of South Asian issues at Kings College in London. “It’s the army using the political government to remove him.”
Risky strategy
Still, trying to keep Khan, 70, behind bars is a risky strategy. The former leader continues to have massive support in Pakistan and his willingness to take on the army is popular among many voters. The 650,000-strong force is facing unprecedented condemnation on social media after years when people didn’t dare speak out.
After Khan’s arrest by Pakistan’s anti-graft agency, rioters breached the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi and set a commander’s home ablaze. Sharif has ordered security officials to arrest anybody involved.
“We will create an example out of the miscreants who vandalized and attacked state institutions so that such an incident never takes place in Pakistan again,” he said at a recent press conference.
On Friday, Khan was granted bail in eight cases against him and given broad protection from future arrests. But the government has vowed to find other ways to silence him, signaling that the showdown is far from over. Even if he avoids a conviction in the graft case, Khan faces nearly 150 other charges, including terrorism, hiding assets and insulting a female judge — all of which he’s denied.
All the while, Pakistan’s historic economic crisis is only worsening, with stark examples of surging prices, poverty and desperation emerging by the day. The benchmark interest rate is at an all-time high of 21%. And after Khan’s arrest, the rupee — Asia’s worst performing currency in the past year — slumped to a record low of 300 to the dollar.
Economic crisis
Even if the IMF releases funds from a stalled $6.7 billion loan program — crucial cash for Pakistan to avoid a default — the country still has total debt of about $240 billion. The Washington-based lender has said that it continues to engage with the government but has expressed concerns about the worsening political landscape.
“At this stage, it is important that economic and financial stability are preserved, and we will be discussing with the authorities policies and financing needed in the period ahead to ensure that the program can continue,” it said over email last week.
Deadly floods last year have only made the fiscal outlook grimmer, submerging about one-third of the country, displacing millions and causing billions of dollars in damage.
Meanwhile, the battle continues over elections. Sharif has resisted Khan’s demand for snap polls, saying the country must focus on securing the IMF bailout. His government has become increasingly unpopular as it pushes through painful reforms in an attempt to clinch the funds.
At the provincial level, Khan and his political allies used their majorities in parliament to dissolve two assemblies and build momentum for an early national vote. That has since evolved into a constitutional crisis, as the government pushes back against a Supreme Court order to carry out fresh elections.
For now, it’s difficult to say how the standoff will play out — or what the military will do. After Khan’s arrest, Sharif likened protesters to “terrorists,” and the military has already taken action to curb rallies, including imposing Article 245 in Punjab. That essentially put the nation’s most populous state under army control.
“The Armed Forces will not tolerate any further attempt of violating the sanctity and security of its installations or vandalism,” army chief General Asim Munir said in a statement over the weekend.
Umbareen Javaid, chairwoman of the political science department at Punjab University, expects more bloodshed if elections go ahead.
“I foresee so many being killed,” she said. “Previously we had religious intolerance and now this political one. It’s a tragedy.”

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