With his enormous strength, the biblical character Samson destroyed the Temple of Dagon in Gaza, killing his Philistine captors and himself. Prime Minister Imran Khan, like Samson, seems determined to bring down the house of Pakistan, dominated so far by the military. Imran refuses to follow his many civilian predecessors, who quietly left when the army showed them the door. In Pakistan, civilian leaders who defied the army have ended up in prison, executed or exiled. Imran has been bold in confronting the military, testing the limits of the national ideology that Rawalpindi claims to protect, and challenging the Deep State by mobilizing the streets.
By brazenly refusing to let the National Assembly vote on the no-confidence vote against him and by getting the president to dissolve the assembly, Imran is looking not only the army in the eye, but also the constitution and the Supreme Court. His challenge will certainly be suppressed for now, but he has promised the establishment that he will pose a greater threat when he is out of power. Khan is ready to take a chance, just like Samson, and take advantage of his many strengths. He remains a national hero after winning the Cricket World Cup in 1992. He enjoys a huge political following and has a larger than life ego.
Khan possesses qualities that his predecessors lacked except for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose charisma moved the Pakistani masses in the early 1970s. He is keenly aware of Bhutto’s defiance which ended in his execution in 1979. He now invokes Bhutto’s name and the dangers he faces from the system he challenged.
Imran’s account that he is a self-made man is only partially true and does not square with the fact that he was “selected” by the military as prime minister in the 2018 elections. military deliberately undermined the two civilian governments that came to power with popular mandates after the end of General Pervez Musharraf’s rule in 2008 – one led by Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party and the other by Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League. The army was suspicious of both Zardari and Nawaz who wanted to break with the army’s policy of supporting militant jihadist groups and improving trade and political ties with India. The army hoped that Khan would put a “beautiful and modern” face on military rule and help destroy old political formations. But Khan had his own ideas for Pakistan’s future and generated a new set of problems for the military.
In the past, army chiefs were the ones who ‘betrayed’ the civilian PMs who appointed them. Ziaul Haq turned against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Musharraf ousted Nawaz Sharif. This time it is Imran Khan who is betraying the army that secured the defeat of his opponents in the 2018 elections and sewn a majority in his favor in the National Assembly. Khan can claim credit for being the first prime minister to boldly overthrow the constitution; until now it was a privilege of the army. He also surprised the military leadership by playing politics with the appointment of the ISI chief last October. When army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa sought to move ISI Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed last year, Khan resisted the transfer and made it a problem. Although he eventually had to admit, it became clear that the prime minister and the army chief were no longer on the same page. To make matters worse, Khan was incompetent to govern Pakistan, deepened the country’s economic crisis, aggravated internal strife, and soured its international relations.
Khan entered Islamic politics, traditionally controlled by the military. He took a tolerant view of militant Islamic groups like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and complied with their extreme demands such as the expulsion of the French ambassador on blasphemy charges. Mobilizing Islamic sentiments has become an important part of Imran Khan’s political toolkit to strengthen his political position in his country.
Beyond domestic politics, he also waded boldly into disputes within the Islamic world. Its attempt to align itself with Turkey and set up a new Islamic bloc has angered Pakistan’s traditional friends in the Gulf – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The army got him to back down.
Khan also blocked opening opportunities to ease tensions with India. In February 2021, the military brokered a ceasefire with India and Bajwa opened the door to a modest confidence-building program with India, including on trade. But Khan overturned that decision citing India’s 2019 constitutional changes in Kashmir. So far, civilian leaders have sought to improve ties with India, and the military has vetoed those plans. Now he is a civilian leader who takes a more hawkish line on Kashmir and relations with India.
Although he often fiercely attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the RSS, Khan also praised India’s “independent foreign policy”. This is less a compliment to Delhi than an attack on the Pakistani military which has long enjoyed a close strategic partnership with the United States and the West. Long before becoming prime minister, Khan often criticized Rawalpindi’s alliance with Washington and his decision to “wage American wars” in the region at great cost to Pakistan. As US-China relations deteriorated, he moved closer to Beijing and, apparently under Chinese pressure, traveled to Moscow as Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to march on Ukraine.
Bajwa last week publicly distanced himself from Khan and criticized Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan and underlined traditionally close ties with the United States and Europe. In the past, the military used to carefully modulate the deep anti-Western resentments in Pakistan to negotiate with the United States and Europe. Khan has now taken his anti-Americanism to the max, accusing the opposition’s call for a vote of “no confidence” of being a US conspiracy to overthrow his government. Hostile foreign interference was the main political argument used to reject the resolution and dissolve the National Assembly.
Imran Khan has embarked on a path no civilian leader has taken: confronting military hegemony on a wide range of issues. As elections approach (assuming they happen soon), Khan is likely to double down on religious mobilization and anti-Americanism. This could add to potential fissures within the military over the proper means to deal with the escalating crises in Pakistan.
Based on form, Khan doesn’t have much of a chance against the Army but the pitch is uneven, the ball has been tampered with and the weather is very overcast – it’s not easy to bet on the outcome. One thing is certain, however: this major intra-elite conflict sparked by Imran’s Samson challenge is sure to have profound consequences for Pakistan’s political trajectory at home and abroad.
This column first appeared in the print edition of April 5, 2022 under the title “L’option Samson”. The author is Senior Fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and International Affairs Editor for The Indian Express