The real threat to Pakistan: Imran Khan, not the Taliban

Pakistan is currently experiencing a case of déjà vu. In a matter of months, there has been a dramatic change in the political scenario in terms of the relationship between the major institutions and actors within the country.

Consider the following developments and compare them with what happened a year earlier. The general elections were declared successful, with the PML-N forming a government in Punjab and at the federal level. The main opposition parties — the PPP, the PTI, led by Imran Khan, and Altaf Hussain’s MQM — to a large extent agreed with the results. The PTI, however, had high expectations for itself, as it had not performed badly at the polls. Though it could not make a substantial impact at federal level, it had enough seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to form a government, obviously with support from the PML-N.

The much expected change within the military, in terms of choosing the next Chief of Army Staff to replace General Kayani, also went off smoothly for Nawaz Sharif. Although it overlooked a few others, the selection of General Raheel Sharif was largely uncomplicated for the elected leadership, and particularly for Nawaz Sharif. Along with the Chief of Army Staff, there was also a change in the Supreme Court; a new Chief Justice replaced the very popular Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Everything seemed to be going on the right track for Nawaz Sharif, the only internal problem being the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Ever since January this year, there have been numerous attempts to initiate an internal dialogue with the TTP. Initially, two committees were formed to represent the TTP and the state. What was even more important for Sharif was to create a political consensus within the parliament and with the rest of the political parties. The government did indeed succeed in creating such a consensus within the political elite through the All Parties Conference.

Until a few weeks ago, events were looking quite bright for Sharif in terms of political stability within the country. Unfortunately everything has changed in the last few weeks through two key events — firstly the Pervez Musharraf trial, and secondly the ongoing war between the Establishment and the media.

For the past few weeks, tensions have arisen between the civilian and military leadership over the proceedings against Musharraf on charges of treason. The case has been pursued by the judiciary as part of its new-found activism, thanks to the legacy left by Iftikhar Chaudhry. Whether Nawaz Sharif played a role in the judiciary’s pursuit of Musharraf is difficult to determine, but the process certainly suited his own objectives; the former Commando had, after all, once removed him from office, as well exiling him.

The military perhaps believe that there is a larger conspiracy to use the Musharraf trial as an excuse to undermine the role of the armed forces in political decision-making. Perhaps there is. Perhaps not. Much depends on who is analysing the issue, and from which perspective.

In a parallel development, an attack on one of Pakistan’s leading journalists, Hamid Mir, has been perceived as an attack against the media itself, perpetrated by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). When the media went into overdrive against the Establishment, the military and its ISI thought there was another conspiracy being hatched to malign the security forces.

Recent developments in Pakistan have to be interpreted against this background. Two statements in particular appear to be more than mere coincidence, and they show the surprising position taken by Imran Khan, a position that is based on two specific points — that the Jang group of publications, which is at the centre of a controversy over the shooting of Hamid Mir, played a role against the PTI, thereby influencing the outcome of the elections; and that the former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry also played a role against Khan.

Given that he agreed with the results of the 2013 elections and formed a government in one of the provinces, this sudden attack by Imran Khan on the Jang group looks more than a coincidence. And it is not only Imran Khan; Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) Chairman Tahir-ul-Qadri, who entered onto Pakistan’s political scene rather suddenly last year, with the objective of changing the electoral process, is here in force today, lending his full support to Imran Khan’s protest.

Many within Pakistan consider Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri closer to the Establishment than they seem, and believe that part of their plan is to shape the country’s internal politics. Before the elections last year, a substantial section within Pakistan did believe that both Qadri and Khan were propped up by the Establishment in order to counter the PML-N. If the above is true, then the recent pronouncements by both these leaders will substantially change the course of politics in Pakistan.

It would also mean that the Establishment has decided to strike back against the political leadership led by Nawaz Sharif, using Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri as pawns. Will this initiative succeed? Or is the Establishment using the above only as a pressure tactic against Sharif?

The bigger question that needs to be addressed is why would Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri be willing to play this game against Nawaz Sharif? And what does it mean for the future political stability of Pakistan?

It appears clear that Khan and Qadri are willing to adhere to the script written by the Establishment. Perhaps they have been promised much bigger things within Pakistan’s political structure. Maybe the Establishment is planning to use them now and throw them away later. Whatever the larger objectives of the Establishment may be, what would destabilise Pakistan from within is the proposed agitation against the Sharif-led government. It would do no good, simply creating political instability within.

The fact that Imran Khan’s political party is also leading the government in the crucial Khyber Paktunkhwa province also means that the PTI could use the prevailing situation in the tribal regions to its own advantage.

So what is the larger picture emerging in Pakistan? Talks with the TTP are at a crucial stage, with the Taliban holding an advantage. Any internal political instability will only increase the power of the Taliban. Any differences between Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif being played out in the streets will also mean a bigger threat to political instability within Pakistan.

It appears that both the Establishment and Imran Khan have decided to sacrifice long-term political stability for short-term gains, with the former wanting to establish its own writ and control over the elected leadership. Does the script look familiar?
— D Suba Chandran