Pakistan was thrown into an unprecedented constitutional crisis as the Prime Minister dissolved the Parliament—and called for elections. What caught our eye: The Pakistani military’s public declarations of affection for the US in the midst of this chaos. What’s going on here?
Editor’s note: We did a detailed explainer of how Imran Khan’s government collapsed—and the roots of his break with the military. We strongly recommend reading it to really understand what’s happening and why.
Here is how we got here:
Here’s what happened on Sunday, the day of the vote:
The military’s response: Its PR spokesperson said: “Army has nothing to do with the political process.”
The constitutional crisis: Everything hinges on whether the Supreme Court rules the deputy speaker’s decision is legal: “If the top court says that the ruling is according to laws, then the advice by the prime minister [to dissolve Parliament] will also be as per law.” OTOH, if it is illegal, then a PM facing a no-confidence vote cannot dissolve the Parliament—or call an election.
Key point to note: It is widely accepted that the military leaned on the Supreme Court to disqualify Nawaz Sharif from running in the 2018 election—and convicted him of corruption. So what the Court rules could well reflect what the ‘establishment’ wants.
Imran Khan has long used anti-US rhetoric to whip up popular outrage—and threatened to shoot down American drones when he was running for election. All of which earned him the nickname ‘Taliban Khan’. And in recent years, he has drawn Pakistan even closer to China. But all of that was tempered by talk of seeking a “balanced” relationship with Beijing and Washington. But now he has openly accused the US of conspiring to overthrow his government—a claim that centres on a certain “secret memo.”
The secret memo: For weeks now, Khan has claimed that he has proof of a document that proves the Opposition is being funded and supported by foreign powers—but he never named names. But on Thursday, he said this at a rally:
“On March 8 or before that on March 7, the US sent us a...not the US but a foreign country sent us a message. The reason why I am talking about this...for an independent country to receive such a message... this is against me and the country… It stated that if the no-confidence motion passes, Pakistan will be forgiven, if not, there will be consequences.”
All this while he waved a piece of paper around:
He also accused the three main opposition leaders of being “three stooges” taking direction from Washington.
What we know: Khan has not publicly shared the actual memo—either with the Parliament or with the media. Pakistani news reports suggest it is a diplomatic cable sent by the Pakistani ambassador in Washington—which contains notes of his meeting with a US official. And this when a direct threat regarding the no-confidence vote was allegedly issued—along with other “horrifying details” that Khan has not specified.
Point to note: On Thursday, the Pakistani government also lodged a formal protest with the acting US envoy in Islamabad. When asked, the White House spokesperson simply said: "There is absolutely no truth to that allegation.”
Why is he doing it? For starters, Pakistanis do not have much love for the US. Many believe Washington simply used Pakistan as a pawn to fund the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet occupation—and then abandoned it to its fate. And the ‘war on terror’ made everything worse. Americans were perceived as constantly bullying Pakistan to do more—even as its soldiers and civilians died in extremist attacks. So playing the American conspiracy card works:
“The fact that it has such easy traction in Pakistan speaks to some of the damage U.S. foreign policy has done in the post 9/11 era in general and in Pakistan in particular. There is a reservoir of anti-American sentiment in the country, which can be instrumentalized easily by politicians like Khan.”
And Khan has paired his US rhetoric with a staunch defence of Islamic pride. As one of his supporters says: “Look out how he has spoken out against Islamophobia. Before we used to be like slaves.”
Not as impressed: The Pakistani press who have been calling out Khan for his ludicrous level of self-obsession—reflected in the number of times he used ‘main’, ‘mujhe’ and ‘mera’ in his recent speech:
There have been a number of recent reports (here and here) that the Army is not pleased with Khan’s increasing cosiness with Beijing—to the point of wholly alienating the US. And the tipping point may well have been Khan’s decision to pay President Putin a visit on the eve of the Ukraine invasion.
The Moscow junket: On the day before Russia invaded Ukraine, Khan landed in Moscow for a pre-scheduled visit—which he refused to postpone despite clear signs of an imminent assault. Worse, he was video-taped at the airport saying this:
It’s unclear whether the Pakistani military was in favour of the visit. But it is important to note that Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa (the man who really runs the show) was in Belgium at around the same time—talking up relations with the EU. And the military was clearly not happy with the fallout of the Moscow trip. Khan came back empty-handed, without having inked any major deals with Putin—and to even greater pressure from the West.
Irony alert: Khan’s Ukraine policy basically mirrored that of India. Pakistan too abstained on all the UN resolutions condemning the Russian invasion—even though Ukraine has long supported it on Kashmir. And when EU nations—along with Britain, Japan and Australia—wrote an open letter to Khan to condemn Moscow, he wildly lashed out: “What do you think of us? Are we your slaves … that whatever you say, we will do?” In other words, Khan’s done his level best to make New Delhi look good.
Bajwa’s new tune: The military has not commented publicly on Khan’s ‘foreign conspiracy’—which is odd since it is a matter of national security. But at a public forum, the top general took pains to put forward what seemed to be a new foreign policy doctrine this weekend.
Bajwa spoke directly about the relationship with Washington: “We have a history of long and excellent strategic relationship with the US, which remains our largest export market.” While he also namechecked China, Bajwa insisted: “We seek to broaden and expand our ties with both the countries without impacting our relationship with the other.”
On Ukraine: Bajwa added this: “Sadly, the Russian invasion against Ukraine is very unfortunate. Despite legitimate security concerns of Russia, its aggression against a smaller country cannot be condoned.”
As for India: Bajwa also called for India, Pakistan and China to come together to peacefully settle their border disputes: “With one-third of the world engulfed in some sort of a conflict or war, it is important that we keep the flames of fire away from our region.” And interestingly, while Bajwa spoke of using “dialogue and diplomacy” to resolve Kashmir, at the same forum, Khan’s foreign minister railed: “Unfortunately, we face a toxic mix in India. An extremist ideological regime that thrives on anti-Muslim hate and hostility for Pakistan.”
Meanwhile, in Beijing: China too has sent subtle signals—and none of them offer great support for Khan. Refusing to comment on the political chaos, China instead praised the Pakistani Army—calling “military-to-military relations… the mainstay of the China-Pakistan friendship.” Point to note: When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Islamabad last week, he also paid Bajwa a visit in Rawalpindi.
The bottomline: Imran Khan’s rise to power was rigged by the very military that seems ready to dump him. Whether he stays or goes too will depend on its whims. What remains to be seen: if this new churn will bring with it a new diplomatic orientation towards the rest of the world.
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