Imran Khan increasingly isolated as Pakistan’s army pressures allies

Share this:


News Desk

Scores of aides and supporters have abandoned the opposition leader since his arrest May 9 and a broader military crackdown

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Imran Khan, the crusading opposition leader whose arrest this month ignited riots across Pakistan, now finds himself increasingly isolated as key aides and supporters defect under pressure from the military and his once-unstoppable party appears in danger of collapsing.

The 70-year-old former prime minister, who was ousted by Parliament just over a year ago, remains outwardly defiant. On Friday, he said the powerful Pakistani army was becoming a “fascist” institution that is waging “undeclared martial law.” He has also demanded that the courts intervene to stop its repression.

But in less than a week, his Movement for Justice party — the onetime juggernaut that propelled the former cricket star to power in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform, drew boisterous throngs to his comeback rallies and then trounced the ruling party in a key provincial race — has been abruptly forced to a halt.

The army, enraged and humiliated when military installations and symbols were vandalized during the protests after Khan’s arrest May 9 on long-standing charges of financial corruption, has branded some rioters as terrorists, while police have detained hundreds of protesters and leaders of Khan’s party.

With approval from civilian authorities, the army has ordered that alleged rioters be tried in military courts, a measure that has rarely been invoked in peacetime but was employed during a spate of terrorist attacks more than a decade ago. Khan and his aides have denied orchestrating any violence and have suggested that saboteurs were planted among unarmed protesters.

But over the past several days, scores of Khan’s aides, party legislators and longtime supporters have abruptly announced they are quitting. Some seemed dazed and defeated by repeated arrests. Others said they were disturbed by the attacks on military targets, especially the torching of a general’s home and the damage to plaques honoring slain soldiers.

On Saturday, a key co-founder of Khan’s party, Imran Ismail, announced he was severing his ties with the former premier. While fondly recalling the early days of their political partnership, he condemned the recent violence, praised the military and said he had become concerned about the party being labeled “anti-army.”

Ismail issued his statement shortly after being released from custody and cleared of charges by an anti-terrorism court.

Among the most important associates to leave Khan is Shireen Mazari, 57, an outspoken nationalist hawk who was his cabinet minister for human rights. She has been arrested and jailed repeatedly since May 9.

On Thursday, the tough-minded politician spoke with uncharacteristic emotion as she announced she was quitting politics for good, stunning viewers across the country. At a subdued news conference, she condemned the violence but said her ordeal in custody had been too stressful for her family. “My mother, children and health are now my priority,” she said.

Khan’s “brinkmanship with the army has boomeranged,” the political analyst Zahid Hussain wrote in Dawn newspaper on Friday. Although the ex-premier has been freed from jail, Hussain wrote, “the noose is tightening around him.”

Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s minister for human rights, addresses the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in February 2022. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
Hussain said Khan thought he could “use street power to topple the establishment.” But those tactics backfired, he wrote, giving security forces license to unleash a “vicious clampdown” on civilians — to the benefit of the politicians who maneuvered to drive him from power.

Khan on Friday offered to hold “immediate talks” with military and civilian leaders, but there was no indication his 11th-hour olive branch would be accepted. He also tweeted a sarcastic thank you to the army for banning him from traveling abroad, saying he preferred to hike in Pakistan’s mountains. The army has banned dozens of his associates from leaving the country.

Khan has also appealed for support from lawmakers in Washington. Members of the House Congressional Pakistan Caucus have denounced alleged abuses during the mass arrests and detentions that have continued since May 9, when Khan was forcibly removed from a court hearing and jailed.

In tweets on Friday, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), the caucus chairwoman, said she was “extremely concerned” about the repeated arrests of Khan and the reported abuse of Pakistanis who expressed “peaceful opposition” to the government. She said she would ask President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to “insist” that such abuses end.

Former secretary of state and CIA director Mike Pompeo tweeted that Pakistan’s government should treat Khan “according to the law.”

But sympathy for Khan in Washington has fallen sharply since his ouster, when he accused the U.S. government of conspiring with his rivals in Parliament and imposing an “imported” regime on the country. U.S. officials denied the accusations and Khan eventually backed off, shifting blame to the army chief at the time.

The Biden administration has maintained businesslike relations with the current Pakistani government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. During the Cold War and the start of the war on terror, the United States forged a close military alliance with Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 231 million people. Those relations have soured in recent years, however, as U.S. officials accused Pakistan of harboring Taliban forces and Pakistan established closer ties with China.

Khan initially enjoyed the tacit support of the military, according to Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. In tweets and in emailed comments to The Washington Post, he said Khan later became a “Frankenstein monster” who turned against his creators.

Army leaders are reluctant to intervene directly in power as they have in the past, Kugelman said. They have opted instead to “squeeze” Khan by pressuring his allies to abandon him. As a result, he said, Khan has been reduced to a “keyboard warrior” on social media. “It appears that the monster has been tamed.”

A banner, seen Saturday in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, denouncing former prime minister Imran Khan and members of his political party. (Sohail Shahzad/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
The crisis has thrown plans for national elections in October into uncertainty, probably leaving the country without an elected leader for months as the nation faces grave economic challenges. Khan has repeatedly accused the government of delaying the vote since his party won a stunning upset in a provincial race in Lahore, Sharif’s stronghold.

At a Supreme Court hearing Saturday on election rules, the chief justice questioned how long delays could be tolerated. A lawyer for the election commission countered that the rising “political temperature” required a “reassessment” of election dates.

The continuing defections of senior aides and influential supporters from Khan’s party have fueled more uncertainty. Some associates, who left traditional dynastic parties to join Khan’s populist crusade, have said they will return to their old groups. Others have said they will leave politics permanently.

Jamshid and Musarrat Cheema, senior party officials who have decided to leave Khan’s movement, told journalists they were particularly upset by the vandalism and violence aimed at the military.

“It was our failure they we couldn’t control the [protesters],” Jamshid said. “I feel badly when I see the pictures of the martyrs,” the slain soldiers whose plaques outside army headquarters were defaced.

Musarrat, his wife, said she had entered politics to serve the public, but “things took a wrong turn. … We never talked against the army and we want a prosperous Pakistan.”

Some analysts say it is too soon to write Khan’s political obituary. Opposition to the Sharif government is widespread and the security crackdown has drawn outrage.

Farrukh Habib, a young activist in Khan’s party who spoke in a video from an undisclosed location on Saturday, denounced “grave human violations” by security forces. At a time of economic crisis, he said, the government’s “sole concern” is to destroy the party and push Khan out of politics.

“We have respect for the martyrs who sacrificed for the country, but the government wants to take advantage of the situation and ban Khan because it cannot defeat him in elections,” Habib declared. If the polls were held today, he said, Khan “would win a clear majority.”

Rick Noack in Kabul contributed this report.

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *