The former Prime Minister was arrested by a horde of paramilitary troops—sparking unprecedented protests that targeted the all-powerful Army. We look at what happened and why—and whether Khan can win this war.
Editor’s note: We’ve offered a brief recap below. Our previous Big Stories have the details of Khan’s tumultuous exit from office, battle with the military—and the recent assassination attempt on him.
Remind me what’s up with Imran Khan…
Kicking out Khan: Back in March 2022, the opposition parties ganged up and passed a no-confidence motion—that threw Khan out of office. The justification offered by the Opposition—economic mismanagement—had little to do with the ignominious end of his tenure. The real reason: The Pakistan military wanted to get rid of their former protege—who had crossed three red lines:
- Khan tried to appoint his guy—ISI chief Faiz Hameed—as the next Army chief of staff—an unprecedented move that made the establishment furious.
- He got too cosy with the Chinese—and pissed off the Americans. The Pakistani military has no desire to put all its eggs in the Beijing-Moscow basket.
- The spiralling economy had fueled popular rage—not just at Khan but also his military patrons. Cutting him loose could help the Army stay out of the line of fire.
The new government: installed after Khan’s ouster is led by Shehbaz Sharif—former PM Nawaz Sharif’s brother—and in coalition with Bilawal Bhutto—son of Benazir Bhutto. This caretaker government is supposed to serve out the rest of Khan's term—until August 2023—when fresh elections will be held (we hope).
Khan’s soaring popularity: Turns out being kicked out of office was the best thing that happened to him. Khan has been holding massive rallies pushing for snap elections—and he is more popular than ever. The growing economic crisis—made worse by devastating floods—has helped him stage a “stunning comeback.” He led a recent Gallup poll with 61% approval—25 points ahead of his two closest rivals.
The assassination attempt: His public cred soared even higher after a failed attempt on his life in November—turning Khan into a martyr. The government has done its best to neutralise Khan—by slapping at least 120 cases on him. The charges range from corruption to terrorism. And yet his party scored a decisive victory in the recent by-elections. It’s a bad omen for the ruling coalition—and its military patrons—specifically the new Army Chief of Staff Syed Asim Munir—who has long been at odds with Khan:
With an election likely by October, for the army chief the dilemma couldn’t be starker. “As an old Pakistani saying goes, there’s only one grave but two candidates,” says Uzair Younus, an Atlantic Council Pakistan expert in a phone interview. “Imran Khan has ensured that it will either be him or Munir who rules Pakistan.”
Ok, why was he arrested?
The trigger: In recent months, Khan has directly accused the military of plotting to kill him. He claims that there were two attempts—by an unnamed intelligence officer. In a rare move, the ISI recently issued a public denial:
Chairman PTI [Imran Khan] has levelled highly irresponsible and baseless allegations against a serving senior military officer without any evidence. This fabricated and malicious allegation is extremely unfortunate, deplorable and unacceptable.
Khan instead doubled down on his allegations yesterday in a video message:
This man tried to kill me twice and whenever an investigation is carried out, I will prove that it was this man and there is a whole gang with him,” Imran said, adding that the nation was well aware of who was standing with the officer in question. My question is: [Despite being] a country’s ex-prime minister — because this man’s name has come forward — [why was] I unable to register a first information report (FIR)?
The very same day, Khan was arrested by paramilitary troops on corruption charges at a court hearing in Islamabad. You can see a clip below:
The charges: Khan has been arrested in a case involving an NGO named Al-Qadir University Trust—which has only two trustees: Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi. He is accused of profiting from a quid pro quo arrangement with a real estate tycoon Malik Riaz—during his tenure as PM. Khan protected Riaz from money laundering charges in exchange for “Rs 5 billion and hundreds of kanals (of land).” The result: $239 million loss to the national exchequer.
Point to note: Pakistani legal experts say Khan’s arrest seems to be illegal under current law—and he may be able to secure bail.
So what happens next?
Even by Pakistan’s tumultuous standards, this is uncharted territory. In an unprecedented move, Khan’s supporters vented their rage directly at military targets:
In Lahore, throngs of Mr. Khan’s supporters ransacked the official residence of an army commander. Hundreds of protesters also gathered outside the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, just outside Islamabad. And in the port city of Karachi, the police fired tear gas to disperse crowds that blocked the city’s main thoroughfare, and protesters burned a police vehicle, a prison van and a paramilitary troops’ checkpoint.
You can see crowds storming the corps commander’s house—saying,”We told you to leave Imran Khan alone”:
A game of chicken: Khan is being punished for directly taking on the military establishment—an astonishing show of chutzpah that has made him “an existential threat” to its power. Some observers think it is unlikely that the Army will back down—despite popular anger and unrest. No one wants to risk Khan’s return to power—least of all General Munir—since he would be the first casualty. OTOH, Khan has invested far too deeply in his anti-Army strategy to back down—without losing face.
Point to note: It’s striking that Khan’s supporters have been allowed to run free:
How long the protests last, and how the Army deals with them will play a decisive role in what happens next. So far, there has been no use of force. The mob in Lahore was not prevented from entering the Army home, which appeared to be unoccupied… The Army may be hoping that after the anger subsides, people will return home.
But the generals may not be as tolerant if the protests inevitably escalate: “His supporters have demonstrated their capacity to turn up in large numbers and bring life to a standstill.” For now, his supporters are resolute and have no intention of backing down.
As for the election: An imprisoned Khan may not be able to run for office—but his party could profit from his martyrdom on Election Day—which would be another nightmare for his rivals.
The bottomline: The generals will not impose martial law for a simple reason: the country desperately needs its IMF bailout package to survive. But that leaves the establishment with few good choices. Of course, Khan could kiss and make up with his former patrons—and return to power with their blessing. Nothing is impossible in politics.
For more details on Khan’s arrest, read the New York Times and BBC News. And Al Jazeera has details on the corruption case. Dawn has more on the back-and-forth over Khan’s allegations of an assassination plot. Indian Express looks at the military’s unenviable choices in the near future. For a broader analysis of Khan’s confrontation with the military, check out The Diplomat and ORF Online. Sadanand Dhume pens a sympathetic take on Khan in the Wall Street Journal (splainer gift link)