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Imran Khan’s Long March Isn’t About Strengthening Civilian Forces in Pakistan

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Imran Khan’s Long March Isn’t About Strengthening Civilian Forces in Pakistan

The PTI chief is unwilling to talk to the civilian government and wants the generals to mediate in the crisis to deliver his demands.

Imran Khan’s Long March Isn’t About Strengthening Civilian Forces in Pakistan

Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf block a main road during a protest to condemn a shooting incident on their leader’s convoy, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/W.K. Yousafzai

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan has announced that his party will resume its “long march” from the same city where he was allegedly shot last week. The party has said that the march, which is aimed at forcing early general elections, will reach Islamabad in the third week of November.

The former prime minister was removed from office in April by a no-confidence vote after his partners defected from the ruling coalition. However, Khan claims that his removal from office was part of a conspiracy that was supported by the United States and some actors in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, Khan has sought to build support for himself through false propaganda and lies in his months-long political campaign to return to power. He makes sweeping claims in his speeches at rallies, and expects Pakistan’s institutions, law enforcement agencies, and his followers to accept them as facts.

Before launching his long march last month, Khan said that the campaign will be “peaceful and people will enjoy it.” Over the last two weeks, we have only seen violence in the long march, including the dramatic gun-attack saga, which Khan has tried to use as another stick to beat the government and state institutions with. Even after a suspect was arrested from the scene and admitted to opening fire on the container on which the PTI leader was standing, Khan insisted that someone else be named in the police’s First Information Report (FIR). While the suspect admitted during the initial investigation that he acted alone and was frustrated because the PTI chief was allegedly misleading the nation and had also articulated “blasphemous and anti-religion words,” Khan insists that the prime minister, the interior minister, and a senior military official were to blame. He is yet to present any evidence to support his allegations.

Given Khan’s history of plugging propaganda and speculation to gain political capital, the federal government and other stakeholders have raised questions about the dubious circumstances of the incident itself. It happened in a province where the PTI is in power. The security of the long march is the responsibility of the provincial PTI government. If as Khan claims he had prior information about the attack, why didn’t he stop the long march to save lives or ramp up his security?

It is becoming increasingly evident that Khan’s so-called long march is anything but a struggle for civilian supremacy. For instance, the PTI chief doesn’t want to negotiate with the civilian government but wants the military establishment to mediate to force early elections.

Last month, the Supreme Court of Pakistan asked Khan to return to parliament to resolve issues. However, Khan ruled out his party’s return to parliament, the forum that constitutionally provides space to defuse the current political crisis.

When Khan was elected prime minister in 2018 with a promise to reduce corruption and ensure accountability and justice, he seemed to have almost everything going in his favor. However, his regime abused human rights on a massive scale; the political opposition was hunted down and journalists were silenced, abducted, and tortured.

Khan promised merit and good governance. Both were missing when the PTI was in power. He unceasingly denied space to people who could help the party with good governance, particularly in Punjab province, where he kept Usman Buzdar as chief minister despite overwhelming criticism from both well-wishers and political observers.

The Buzdar blunder was among Khan’s worst decisions. Under Buzdar, Punjab virtually lost direction as the province’s bureaucracy remained unable to deliver due to PTI’s internal power struggle and Khan’s intransigence in keeping a weak and incompetent person in the office. And now, he has installed in the same office a man he once called the “biggest dacoit in Punjab.”

Back in March, I wrote for The Diplomat that Khan will go to any lengths to retain power, including revealing state secrets if that could save him. I also argued that Khan will make attempts to make the role of the military establishment controversial to “save himself.” And this is exactly what he has done over the months. This has not only harmed Pakistan’s reputation but also damaged its ties with friendly countries.

For months, Khan has used a classified diplomatic memo to not only settle scores with his political opponents but also incite his political base by disseminating propaganda. “Let’s play with it,” Imran allegedly told his aide about the classified memo, which he has used for months to claim that the United States conspired to remove his government. Washington has rejected Khan’s allegations that it was aiming to oust his government.

While in power, Khan deliberately weakened parliament as he never showed interest in empowering the institution. He is on record as saying that he relied on intelligence agencies to run his government and manage political allies. And now, he has a problem with the military and intelligence agencies doing their job and refusing to help his party in any way.

Last week, Khan wrote a letter to President Dr. Arif Alvi, requesting him to define the parameters of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media wing. Interestingly, he didn’t feel the need to do this while he was in power.

Khan says making U-turns is a “hallmark of great leadership.” For him an ideological stand and the rule of law aren’t important, despite what he would like his supporters to believe. This essentially means that if tomorrow the ISPR were to say something which Khan may regard as favorable to his political goals, he would enthusiastically accept the ISPR’s political role once again.

Khan’s long march is expected to arrive in the capital in the third week of November, days ahead of the new army chief’s appointment. The march should be watched closely as Khan will make his final moves to win concessions from whomever he can, including and most likely from the outgoing Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

A senior government official told The Diplomat on condition of anonymity that Khan “wants to get political favors from the army chief before he retires on November 29.” He would like the army chief “to get him early elections.” Khan would also like to have “a say in the appointment of the new army chief;” hence the coinciding of the march’s arrival in Islamabad and the appointment of the new army chief.

“His main purpose is to build pressure on the establishment, so it will intervene to get him what he wants on his own terms, which otherwise the current government is not going to grant him in any way,” the official said.

For Pakistan’s stability, Khan must be told to go back to parliament to negotiate with the incumbent regime and find a way forward regarding the next elections. It is important too that the military does not intervene in favor of one party or the other. The military should make it crystal clear to Khan that the days of favors are long gone.

Above all, Khan needs to come to terms with the fact that he cannot influence institutions that form the foundations of the state. The next two weeks are going to be critical for Pakistan’s stability.