Following unprecedented attacks against military-owned properties and widespread protests after Khan was briefly jailed earlier this month, more than 10,000 people linked to Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek—e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice, have been arrested in police raids. Several prominent leaders are now in jail and more than two dozen PTI stalwarts have quit the party this week.
Publicly the army and the government say they are holding accountable anyone who attacked state-owned property. Behind the scenes, however, there’s a recognition that Khan’s popularity is unmatched and his party must be cut down to size ahead of elections due in October at the latest, according to two people familiar with the military’s thinking.
Khan now risks meeting a similar fate as previous prime ministers who have been jailed, exiled or executed following power struggles with Pakistan’s generals. Although army support was widely credited in bringing Khan to office in the last national election in 2018, his current predicament stems from his attempts to mess with military hierarchy — a red line for Pakistan’s most powerful institution, which has directly controlled the nuclear-armed nation for much of its post-independence history.
For now, “this is the end of the road for Imran Khan,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a senior fellow at King’s College London and expert on Pakistan’s military. “The question is will they be able to take away his support base?”
Khan’s ability to connect with the outside world and marshal support is already being eroded. On Wednesday, the internet at his Lahore residence was abruptly cut off before a scheduled call with British lawmakers concerned about Pakistan’s deteriorating political, economic and security situation. Police have also compounded most of his armored cars, limiting his movements, Zulfi Bukhari, a close aide to Khan, told Bloomberg News.
On Friday, a news report said Khan and his wife had been placed on a no-fly list and were barred from leaving the country. The former premier survived an assassination attempt late last year.
Pakistan’s military didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Since his ousting as prime minister last year following a parliamentary no-confidence vote, Khan has campaigned relentlessly for fresh elections. He has blasted the unwieldy coalition headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif — who is seen as more amenable to the army even though his brother was once ousted in a coup — as a corrupt force of self-serving dynastic parties.
Khan’s charismatic, everyman quality, past cricketing victories and more recent embrace of pious religion — despite his elite upbringing and earlier playboy lifestyle — has seen his popularity soar across Pakistani society, including many of the army’s rank-and-file. An opinion poll published by Gallup earlier this year found that Khan’s approval rating jumped to 61% in February from 36% in January last year, while Sharif’s fell to 32% from 51% in that time.
That poses a major dilemma for the military brass. Khan would win an election by a landslide with no “credible alternative” for the army to back, according to Tim Willasey-Wilsey, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.
With Pakistan’s more than 240 million people grappling with record inflation and the country on the verge of default thanks to stalled bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund, the military is unlikely to boot out the elected government and take direct control. Pakistan’s last coup leader, General Pervez Musharraf, stepped down as a deeply unpopular and diminished figure fifteen years ago.
Pakistan’s rupee slid to a record-low 299 per dollar this month while dollar bonds are trading at distressed levels. The currency has lost about 20% this year, among the worst performers in the world.
“The army’s problem is that every measure against Imran will add to his popularity,” said Willasey-Wilsey. “It could also lead to divisions amongst the Corps Commanders who will be anxious about alienating the army from the people — the army will doubtless contemplate intervention options short of a coup, including delaying elections.”
Khan’s relationship with the military wasn’t always so fractious. After coming to power he openly conceded that the forces, which enjoy an over-sized defense budget and wide-ranging business interests across Pakistan, had a role to play in governing the country. But that relationship began unraveling in 2021 as Khan’s anti-American rhetoric pushed the country further away from the US as the economy deteriorated, drawing Islamabad closer to Russia and China.
Eventually it was Khan’s attempt to control military promotions that escalated tensions. He publicly opposed then Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa’s choice for the head of Pakistan’s feared spy agency, voicing support for one of his own allies to stay in the role. Bajwa eventually got his way, but the incident sowed the seeds for Khan’s ouster.
“He miscalculated by seeking once again to intervene and interfere in the business of military appointments — of course that, as in the past, is the one area that the military guards jealously as its prerogative,” said Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow at London’s Chatham House research institute. “It’s a familiar routine, we’ve been here before. Other parties have also splintered and fragmented under pressure from the military establishment.”
His relationship with Bajwa’s successor, General Asim Munir, was also fraught. As prime minister, Khan had removed Munir from the role of intelligence chief. Khan more recently inflamed matters by personally blaming the recent turmoil on Munir’s desire for power, and on Monday he likened the situation in Pakistan to Adolf Hitler’s rise in the 1930s.
Hours after the government said this week it was considering a ban on his PTI over the attacks on military offices and buildings, Khan struck a more conciliatory tone. He offered to hold talks with Sharif’s administration and the military, saying he is ready to form a committee to talk with “anyone who is in power today.”
“What’s important is there to be a political dialog between everybody,” said Khan’s aide Bukhari. “Then also at some stage, the two most powerful people in the country, the chief of army staff and Imran Khan, have to sit down and discuss a way forward.”
Any such negotiation for Khan will likely now come from a position of relative weakness. Public sympathy for the military has also risen since the attacks on army property and officer’s homes.
In the port city of Karachi, Pakistan’s business hub, massive banners and posters — some covering the entire length of multistory buildings — declare “Long Live Pakistan” and “Long Live the Soldier.” Others feature Munir flanked by his officers. Trade associations have conducted rallies in support of the armed forces, while television and film stars have taken to social media to declare their love and support for the military.
Sixteen people accused of taking part in the violence that targeted army buildings have been handed over to military courts, according to a document shared by the PTI.
The tactics against Khan are “a page out of the military’s usual playbook” in dealing with dissenting politicians and parties, according to Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“If this is history repeating itself with the military’s assertiveness,” she said, “it’s not looking good for Imran Khan, his party, or for Pakistan’s democracy.”