What happened in Wazirabad last week was perhaps a story foretold. The gun attack on Imran Khan has pushed the country deeper into anarchy. The would-be assassin may have been arrested, but the motive behind the shooting remains shrouded in mystery. The former prime minister has been quick to blame the top government leaders and a senior intelligence official for plotting the attack. He has named names.
It may have been a lone-wolf action, but the incident has inflamed an already volatile situation. The attack has weaponised the Khan’s ongoing ‘long march’. By directly implicating a senior intel official in the alleged plot to ‘kill him’, the former prime minister has taken the battle to General Headquarters.
It seems to be a well-calculated move to step up the pressure on the security establishment on the eve of a critical transition in the Army high command. Khan’s letter to the president calling upon him to act against the “abuse of power and violations of our laws and the Constitution”, and to delineate “clear operational lines” vis-à-vis the Inter-Services Public Relations has accentuated the political divide.
Khan has also urged the president to take note of what he describes as “serious wrongdoings”, which were weakening Pakistan’s security, and to hold the “guilty” accountable. Clearly, he was referring to elements within the security establishment.
Khan’s appeal to the president for action seemed to have been triggered by last month’s unprecedented media briefing by the Inter-Services Intelligence and Inter-Services Public Relations chiefs where the former prime minister was censured for his false foreign conspiracy narrative.
The stand-off between the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the security establishment also worsened after the alleged custodial torture of former federal minister Senator Azam Swati. The elderly senator arrested by the FIA last month in a case registered against him over a controversial tweet is now out on bail. He has accused two senior intel officials of being involved in the alleged crime.
Meanwhile, an objectionable video featuring him and his wife has caused public outrage across the political divide. The image of the elderly senator breaking down during a press talk has shaken the country. Nothing could be more sinister than videotaping the private life of an honourable member of parliament and releasing it.
Predictably, fingers have been pointed at the security establishment. Khan’s insistence on nominating the intel official, along with the prime minister and interior minister, as suspects in what he describes as a plot to kill him has intensified his confrontation with the security establishment. Unsurprisingly, the allegation drew a scathing rebuttal from Inter-Services Public Relations.
In a statement, the military rejected the accusation as “baseless and irresponsible” and warned that allegations against the senior army officer and the institution are “absolutely unacceptable and uncalled for”. The military has also urged the government to take action against the former prime minister for maligning the security institution.
Such scathing public exchanges are rare. They clearly show the growing hostility between the former prime minister and his erstwhile patrons. His aggression against the military leadership denotes no breakthrough in ‘back-channel talks’ with the generals. Apparently, the demands presented by Khan were believed to be unacceptable to the establishment. His rising populist support seems to have added to Khan’s hubris.
Moreover, though in opposition, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has control of two of the most important provinces besides being in power in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Having a government in Punjab has particularly given the party huge political leverage, making it much harder for the establishment to deal with the challenge posed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Still, it was not possible for Khan to get an first information report registered against the senior military official whom he publicly accused of plotting to kill him. The resistance apparently came from the chief minister of the province himself. It was hard for Parvez Elahi to take on the establishment.
Despite all the efforts by Khan, the police refused to register cases against the prime minister, the federal home minister and the intelligence official. It is only the gunman caught at the spot who has been named in the first information report after the Supreme Court’s order to register the complaint.
It was a clear message from the establishment about the limitation of Khan’s power and was seen as a strong rebuttal to the former prime minister. But that too has not stopped him from upping the ante.
It has been a good move by the prime minister to request the Supreme Court chief justice to form a full-bench commission to probe the Wazirabad incident. Though in favour of a judicial commission, Khan has expressed his reservations regarding the investigation agencies probing the failed assassination attempt. It is highly unlikely that he will accept a verdict unfavourable to him.
Meanwhile, Khan has announced the resumption of the long march that was suspended after the firing incident. With violence spreading to major cities in Punjab, there is little hope of the situation calming down. It may take days for the march to reach Islamabad, but the siege of the capital already seems to have begun with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters blocking main entry points.
It may be outside the president’s constitutional power to act against a serving army officer as demanded by the former prime minister but the letter sent to him by Khan highlights the widening fault lines in the country’s power structure. The events of the past week demonstrate the unravelling of the edifice. An increasingly divided state has worsened the power vacuum.
There is a complete breakdown of authority. The fear of civil strife looms large with the impending collapse of state institutions. The ongoing political confrontation and polarisation threaten to derail the democratic process. Khan’s confrontation with the establishment cannot be taken as a battle for civilian supremacy. It is a ruthless struggle for power. The country is hurtling towards a state of anarchy with no resolution to the crisis in sight.
This article first appeared in Dawn.