‘Imran has morphed into Frankenstein’s monster for Pak army’

‘The senior army leadership has no interest in reconciling with Imran Khan, and no interest in seeing him return to power.’

“Imran Khan hasn’t been controllable since his falling out with the army leadership. The State likely concluded that the only way to control him is to arrest him,” explains Dr Michael Kugelman, Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, the Washington, DC-based think-tank.

A leading specialist on Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and their relations with the United States, Dr Kugelman gives an insightful and must-read interview about what is unraveling in Pakistan to Rediff.com‘s Archana Masih. The first of a two-part interview:

What does Imran Khan’s rather dramatic arrest mean? What signals does it send?

I think the message is clear: For the Pakistan army, the gloves have come off. After several threats of arrest that weren’t carried out due to changes of heart or failed implementation, this time the military meant business: It sent paramilitary forces to smash their way into the Islamabad high court to apprehend him.

For analysts trying to make sense of this crisis, it’s important to navigate around all the uncertainty and zero in on what we do know. And we know that the senior army leadership has no interest in reconciling with Khan, and no interest in seeing him return to power.

The arrest takes him out of the electoral picture, though he could still contest an election from jail.

The next step could be to build a disqualification case, as that would remove any chance of Khan participating in the next election, whenever that may be.

Imran has shown no signs of slowing down since his ouster as prime minister and after being wounded in the attack in 2022 — and has repeatedly blamed the military, ISI officer Major General Faisal Naseer and the prime minister, for the attack. Is this the reason that provoked his arrest?

The fact that the arrest came so soon after Khan reiterated the allegations against General Naseer does suggest a link. The video he posted with that allegation may have been the final straw, from the military’s perspective.

In effect, after so many provocations and allegations from Khan, the military reached an ‘enough is enough’ moment and decided to act decisively.

But this may not be the full story. The military may also have been waiting for the right time to order the arrest, and under the right conditions. Previous attempts may not have panned out because word spread in advance about a pending arrest, prompting Khan’s supporters to rush out to resist.

In this case, there was no advance warning, and it happened during a routine court visit by Khan. There was a strong surprise element, which helped the State. So it may have been a case of all the key elements coming together at the right time for the army.

Does the breach of Pakistan’s army headquarters in Rawalpindi and the burning of the Pakistan Radio station on Tuesday provoke a dangerous confrontation between the army and Khan’s supporters. Where could all this lead to?

There’s a bit of uncertainty around these violent attacks on State infrastructure and military facilities.

Reports have circulated that some of this damage is actually being inflicted by pro-State goons to provoke unrest and give the government a pretext to postpone elections and declare martial law. Who knows whether that’s true or not.

But either way, one can’t deny that public fury is being directed against the military in ways we haven’t seen in years — and much of that fury comes from PTI supporters.

The trajectory of this confrontation will, of course, depend on what steps the army takes next.

How will it treat Khan in detention?

How long will he be jailed?

How far does it go to sideline him?

ill disqualification be next?

Will it try to ban the PTI and end the Khan political enterprise once and for all?

While the senior army leadership clearly wants to sideline Khan, the full story goes deeper than this. There are sizable contingents of low and middle-rank officers, and also some retired officers, that still support Khan.

Cohesion and unity is critical for any military, but especially Pakistan’s, which likes to be projected as the country’s saviour — the institution that brings together a fractious nation vulnerable to India’s predations.

Army chief General Asim Munir must surely be aware of the implications for military cohesion of pursuing an all-out campaign against Khan and the PTI.

What are the chances of martial law being imposed the country?

De facto martial law has already been imposed, in that the army has been called in to Punjab and KPK (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) provinces already.

Given the serious threats to public order, in a different era the military may have taken over by now. We can’t rule that out in the present crisis, if there is sustained violent unrest over a long period of time.

But let’s be clear: The army is on the back foot, on the defensive, in ways that it hasn’t been for a long time. It’s taken hits to its popularity, thanks to Khan’s anti-military narrative.

Martial law, much less a full coup, would likely be met with deep levels of anger in Pakistan.

Ultimately, the army likely doesn’t want to have to make the choice of whether to impose martial law or not. This is why it’ll hope that the protestors stay in the streets for some time longer, but then, eventually, run out of steam and then go home.

If the protests aren’t sustained, and unrest subsides, the incentive for martial law recedes.

Do you see this arrest enhancing Imran Khan’s popularity?

Victimisation is a powerful thing in Pakistani politics. With his arrest, Khan’s victimisation narrative — reflected in (in his view) his illegitimate ouster from power, his being targeted by the State (including an assassination attempt), and the State’s broader repression against his party — has just gotten a whole lot stronger.

So in addition to galvanising his impassioned support base, he’s likely to win over some new supporters as well.

But if Khan toils in jail for a long time, it’s hard for him to build on and sustain that public support. By contrast, if he gets out soon, he’ll have the opportunity to connect with the public and make himself into an even bigger player.

This is one reason why the State likely won’t feel a strong incentive to have him freed anytime soon.

His party believes that the military and government want to jail and disqualify him from politics before the elections or kill him. Do you think there is any merit in these fears because Imran has proven to be uncontrollable by the military?

I definitely think the civilian and political leadership are keen to sideline him from politics.

Khan is a one-time favorite son of the military who has effectively morphed into a Frankenstein’s monster: He hasn’t been controllable since his falling out with the army leadership. The State has likely concluded that the only way to control him is to arrest him.

Disqualification would be the final step that would ensure his absence from the political scene.

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