There is little understanding of Pakistan and its internal dynamics in Afghanistan. A recent example is the visit of President Hamed Karzai to Pakistan last week, during which he met with Pakistani leaders – not only those from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) but also a number of other prominent politicians: the leaders of two Pashtun nationalist and of two religious parties as well as the leader of the opposition and former premier, Nawaz Sharif. At a glance, this may seem like good enough. It is not though. It is inadequate; a testament to the lack of understanding of internal dynamics of Pakistan on the part of Karzai’s advisors. These days Pakistan is gripped with a different fever. Labelled as the ‘Imran Khan factor’ by Pakistani commentators, there is no doubt that upcoming elections in Pakistan are going to give birth to a new political force, a force untested in the political arena or in government, and a force with radical ideas of change. Our guest blogger Malaiz Chopan-Daud* looks at the background.
Imran Khan is a former world-class cricketer-turned-politician who has proved to be the most popular and potent Pakistani politician at present. He has pulled crowds in hundreds of thousands to his meetings. His meeting in Lahore on 30 October 2011 has probably been the biggest in Pakistan’s history with 150-250,000 people in attendance , followed by a massive one in Karachi. Lahore and Karachi are traditionally the strongholds of Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz Group (PML-N), led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) respectively. Anyone who knows Pakistan knows all too well that pulling such a crowd in MQM-dominated Karachi by one of its stern adversaries is no less than a miracle.
Second, stalwarts of established Pakistani political parties such as Javed Hashmi of PML-N and Shah Mehmood Qureshi of PPP, Pakistan’s former foreign minister, have joined the Pakistan Movement for Justice or, as it is called in Urdu, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Imran Khan’s party. Hundreds of prominent figures, former military officers, technocrats, businessmen and women, sportspersons, even singers and actors feature in today’s PTI.
Third, there is a big number of youth in PTI ranks along with the so-called educated class. Imran Khan’s Facebook page boasts an impressive half a million fans. Internet is a thing of lower-middle and middle class in Pakistan; needless to say a group that rarely goes out to vote. It seems, they may this time around. This has led Imran Khan to confidently claim he will be the next prime minister of Pakistan. He says he had never claimed to win the cricket world cup until he was certain in 1992 that he actually would. And against all the odds, he did win it.
Whether Imran Khan will become the prime minister of Pakistan or not does not change the fact that he is well on course to enter the Pakistani parliament as a major political force. Then, he probably will be in a position to influence Pakistan’s internal and external politics more than all the political leaders President Karzai met collectively. If that is the case, what is it that Imran Khan wants?
Before I go into that discussion, sceptics will point out that it is not the Pakistani civilian government but its powerful military that calls the shots on matters of foreign policy, including Afghanistan. Imran Khan, however, sees it differently. Time will tell whether or not he can actually tame this beast. It is worth mentioning that he famously selected his own teams as captain in cricket and made all the crucial decisions on and off the field in an otherwise highly politically-charged environment. One has to wait and see if he can translate that once in government – a much bigger arena than a cricket pitch.
The Pakistani military, on the other hand, has recently slipped away from its so far tenable position in the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination and its implication in a number of cases taken up by the increasingly independent Pakistani Supreme Court. This is mainly shown by how courageously Pakistani analysts and journalists now are speaking about – and criticising – the role of the army and the ISI, apparently without fear of a backlash, as it almost automatically would have followed a few months ago. (See one example – in Urdu – here.)
Historically, Pakistani military, the dictators in particular, have relied on support of a number of politicians and political parties. Now, the omens do not look good for them. All major political players, including Imran Khan, have made it very clear that they will resist a possible military coup, depriving the army of political support and creating a joint front against it. By Pakistani standards, the ‘Memogate’ scandal and continuous harassment of the army by the Supreme Court would have called for a much tougher action on the army’s part than what has happened lately. No one knows whether this is a temporary blip or a new form of politics taking shape where the army will ultimately be restricted to its constitutional role.
On his relations with the army, Imran Khan has already faced accusations of support by the ‘establishment’.** The accusations were raised by Imran Khan’s rivals after the Lahore meeting, mainly, due to the sheer size of it. It was believed that a meeting of such a magnitude was beyond a political party’s capacity. However, a number of impartial observers, and even some partial ones, contended there was genuine support for PTI in the mass present at the meeting and that there was no sign of intervention by ‘intelligence agencies’. Imran Khan has vehemently denied all such assertions. He currently supports a petition of Air Marshal (rtd) Asghar Khan,*** in which he blames the ISI to have rigged elections in 1990 using 6.5 million dollars in favour of PML-N: the case will be heard – after decades of procrastination – by the Supreme Court on 29 February 2012. Imran Khan believes the case will shed light on all other cases of the army’s support to political parties, his included. He has also maintained in public through numerous TV appearances that he will never resort to coming to power through any other means but ‘public mandate’. The jury is still out on this and the issue remains unresolved.
Now, what does Imran Khan want? For a start, he wants open borders with Afghanistan, an immediate termination of Pakistan’s cooperation in the US’s ‘War on Terror’, a halt of Pakistani army operations in the tribal areas, negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban or, as he puts it, the ‘one million-strong armed tribesmen‘, a complete overhaul or even an end of external aid and the complete subjugation of the Pakistani army to the civilian government including foreign policy, should he become the prime minister. He claims that ‘I have never ever, ever [he uses ‘ever’ twice in this video] been controlled by anyone’. Imran Khan’s manifesto is largely contradictory to current realities of Pakistan but whose is not? What sets him apart is the consistency in his messages since 2004 and his unwavering conviction to his beliefs. One of the reasons his agenda is receiving so much public support now, and not some years back, may be the pent-up public frustration and hopelessness after the failure of a civilian government and its predecessor regime under General Pervez Musharraf.
Imran Khan’s views on how Pakistan’s internal politics and economy should be shaped will have indirect implications on the entire region, Afghanistan and its international allies and their project included. On the face of it, Imran Khan’s plans, though ambitious, seem advantageous to Afghanistan. The more democratic Pakistan is, the less hostile it may become to its neighbours as there will be little reason or appetite for its elected governments to pour resources in foreign wars instead of hard-pressing issues at home – economy, energy, poverty, etc. Second, Imran Khan’s plan to lead a peace process with India with no role for intelligence agencies and accountability of the army will effectively mean ridding the Afghan insurgency of its most important foreign backer. As there is the realization in Afghanistan now that a military solution to the Afghan war is impossible, Imran Khan’s plan for negotiating with the Pakistani Taleban, which he has been talking about since 2004, holds some water. It may result in a temporary escalation of violence in Afghanistan, as some groups will cross the border and continue to fight, but has the potential to end the war in the longer run.
How could President Karzai, under these circumstances, not meet Imran Khan?**** Didn’t he or his advisors, especially those accompanying him on this trip, realize the importance of the ‘Imran Khan factor’? Maybe, he didn’t want to face the wrath of the PPP and PML-N – already on shaky terms with Kabul – who view Imran Khan as the ultimate threat to their dominance of Pakistani politics. Whatever the reason, this was a big opportunity missed and an action, intentional or otherwise, grossly misdirected.
* Malaiz Chopan-Daud is an independent Afghan analyst currently residing in Germany. In the past he worked for different NGOs and foundations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including CARE, FES and ADA, and in different capacities with the Afghan Ministries of Agriculture and of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, the Constitutional and Transition Coordination Commissions and the President’s Office. He also was country director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
** The term ‘establishment’ is usually used in Pakistan as a synonym for ‘security institutions’.
*** Asghar Khan has been a prominent politician in Pakistan for decades, mainly in opposition to whoever ruled and therefore often in jail, although for his opposition to Zulfeqar Ali Bhutto he became – most likely unintentionally, one of the trailblazers of the Zia-ul-Haq regime. For years, he led his own party, Tehreek-e Isteqlal (Independence Movement), but he declared his support for Imran Khan’s TI in early 2012.
**** Reports about Karzai’s other meetings here and here.
Cartoon from the Pakistani weekly Friday Times.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020