The battle lines have now been clearly drawn. Apparently undeterred by the security establishment’s frontal attack, Imran Khan is marching on the citadel. The much-awaited ‘long march’ has finally begun. It may take days for the crowds to reach the capital but there are already signs of panic in the corridors of power. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan sees it as the final assault. The massive public response to the march call has certainly boosted his confidence.

After the vote of no-confidence, it is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s second attempt to storm the capital. The march on May 25 had ended in a whimper mainly because of the use of massive force by the government. Control over the Punjab administration at that time had allowed the federal government to block the marchers. But the situation has completely changed now with the return of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government to the country’s most powerful province.

It may not be that easy for the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to control the situation. Still, it is too early to predict the outcome of this war of nerves.

What’s more, it is no longer a power struggle between a fractious dispensation in Islamabad and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, but has turned into a direct confrontation between the powerful security establishment and a rampaging populist force led by the ousted prime minister. Whatever ambiguity existed was removed by the unprecedented appearance of the ISI chief, along with the Inter-Services Public Relations director general, before the media and his scathing remarks against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief on the eve of the march.

Apparently, the controversial press talk came in response to allegations, especially on social media, linking the establishment to the killing of TV anchor Arshad Sharif in Kenya. The journalist, who had fled the country a few months ago, out of security concerns, was shot dead in mysterious circumstances.

While rebutting the allegations, the intel chief also criticised the former prime minister for maligning the military leadership. The latter has been feeling the heat of the public outrage over the murder of the prominent journalist, and Khan’s statement that it was a targeted killing might have triggered the spy chief’s outburst.

Still, there was no rationale for this press talk, which seems to have been the outcome of anger and panic. Interestingly, in the same breath, the general also tried to give the reassurance that the security establishment would remain neutral in the ongoing politics. Predictably, his remarks provided Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf with fresh ammunition to fire back.

The whole episode has further vitiated the political atmosphere. It has sharpened Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s narrative that questions the establishment’s claim of neutrality. It has now turned into a no-holds-barred attack on the security agencies, bringing the conflict to a head. The killing of Arshad Sharif has made the political situation highly combustible. Khan has weaponised the incident by whipping up anti-military sentiments.

It is highly challenging for the military leadership to contain the populist leader whom it was once seen to nurture, while propping up his government. With Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf controlling the two most powerful provinces, it has worsened the establishment’s predicament.

Khan’s recent triumph in bye-elections held across the country has strengthened his political position in the ongoing battle. His disqualification by the election commission in the Toshakhana case does not seem to have had any effect on his political support base. His victory in the latest bye-election in Kurram district by a wide margin is yet another indication of his rising electoral appeal across the provincial divide.

Moreover, some observers say that the election commission’s decision could be overturned by the higher courts. It is clear that any move to keep a popular leader out of the electoral field won’t work. Khan has galvanised his support base across the board with his relentless campaign, while his opponents seem to be in a state of near paralysis.

A deteriorating economic situation, including rising inflation, has fuelled the public’s discontent. All that has given huge momentum to Khan’s march. An ineffective coalition administration in Islamabad can hardly withstand the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s onslaught. The game may not be over yet but all bets are off.

Khan’s game plan is clear; he is trying to force the security establishment’s hand. He has stepped up the pressure close to the transition in the army’s command. His goal to get the appointment of the new chief delayed may not succeed but his siege of the capital could bring the new leadership under pressure. Though denied by some, there have been some reports of back-channel negotiations.

Khan had himself recently said that he was in contact with the establishment, notwithstanding the ongoing war of words. His blow-hot blow-cold approach seems to be a part of his strategy to keep some doors open for reconciliation. There is also a strong lobby within his party that is not in favour of an all-out confrontation with the security establishment.

However, the real issue is: what does Khan want to achieve by marching on Islamabad? He says the objective of the march is not to overthrow the government. If the party were only interested in early elections this could have easily been achieved by dissolving the assemblies in the two key provinces that are under the party’s control. But that is not happening.

It seems that the main objective of the march is a show of political strength and to increase pressure on the security establishment to agree to the party’s terms. But there seems to be no indication yet of the military leadership willing to concede.

One thing was very clear from the ISI chief’s statement: the gulf between the PTI and the military leadership is too wide to be plugged easily. The march is not likely to end the current stalemate. Forcing the military to intervene will have serious consequences for the country. There is a need to find a political solution to end the deadlock.

This article first appeared in Dawn.