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Why did Pakistan’s Elite Generals Cherry-pick Imran Khan as New Prime Minister?

Ehsan Azari Stanizai

Pakistan’s July 25 election resembled an episode of the theatre of cruelty: widespread accusation of vote-rigging, suicide bombs, at least 157 death and over 200 wounded, internationally designated terror suspects allowed to contest, the former prime minister behind bars, 370,000 troops deployed to the polling stations and the army officers had the power of magistrates, and at the end, the winner, Imran Khan, the sport playboy-turned political leader.

The worst hit during the election were an estimated four million Ahmadis of Pakistan who were barred from voting.  The irony is that the leaders of the Ahmadiyya community played a pivotal role in the creation of Pakistan itself in 1947.  The world still remembers Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan—Pakistan’s first foreign minister and once the leader of all-India Muslim League who authored the resolution of the independent Muslim country in 1940 in Lahore, Sir Mohammad Iqbal—the country’s national poet who, according to Tariq Ali converted to Ahmadiyya Sect, and  the country’s Nobel laureate, Abdus Salam.  

For Imran Khan, however, Pakistan turned out to be a promised land.  The growing mistrust between Pakistani army and the two dynasties, Nawaz Sharif and Bhutto, which alternatively ruled the country for decades left Pakistani generals with no choice but to cherry-pick Khan.  A Gallup poll gave Sharif’s party in May a 13-point lead over Imran Khan.

Khan’s ascent to the upper-crust of Pakistani politics was much painless than his rise to the global fame as a cricket hero.  In the early 1990s, he was first discovered and groomed by General Hamid Gul, the ex-director of Pakistan’s feared military Intelligence, the ISI.  Hamid Gul was also the chief incubator of the most lethal and ideologically driven religious extremists, including the Haqqani network.  Khan set up his Tahreek-e-Insaf, TIP, (Justice Party) in 1996 and used all his guile and fire-breathing rhetoric to cultivate himself as a fighter for the rights of the poor, an anti-corruption crusader, an anti-American, and a pious Muslim.    

Earlier this year, Imran Khan’s ruling party in the Pashtun dominated Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province allocated US $3.00 million to the Haqqania madrassa, which is famous as the old ‘university of terror’.  Among the alumni of the madrassa are Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and an Al-Qaida leader, Asim Umar.  This generosity takes place at a time that Khan’s party shut down 42 public schools for budget restriction in the tribal areas.

The Janus-faced Khan is a Pashtun by birth, but in truth, he is a model Punjabicized (Punjab is the home of the majority of Pakistani generals) Pashtun.  The Pashtun Saplai (chappal) he is wearing is the only mark of his Pashtun bloodline. In his book, Pakistan: A Personal History, he is not ashamed of mocking his religiously minded fellow tribesmen, “For these resilient people, the existence of God and life after death were as obvious as the sun and the moon.”  In his victory speech, Khan pledged that he will build a new Pakistan, inspired by the kind of a state that Prophet Muhammad founded in Medina. But the farrago of his styles makes this statement looks like a non sequitur joke.  After less than ten months he divorced his ex-wife, Reham Khan just by sending her a text message when she refused to allow Khan’s pet dogs to their bedroom.  In her book released now on Amazon, she alleges that Khan was a sex maniac, cocaine user and always in with a gay relationship with his senior party members.

One of the major tests Khan will be facing is the rising Pashtun insurrection known as Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), which has broken Pakistan’s heaviest taboo by several massive anti-army rallies across Pakistan since the beginning of the year.  Two of the PTM campaign slogans: this terrorism that you see, the uniform is behind it; Pashtuns of Up and Down (Afghanistan and Pakistan) are all Afghans seem to be too ominous to the ears of Pakistani generals.  The movement is openly pillorying Pakistani army of extrajudicial killing, widespread disappearances of men and women, looting, and unlawfully incarceration of the Pashtun minority in Pakistan.  The 24-year old leader of the movement, Manzoor Pashteen recently said in an interview, “we don’t know much about Imran Khan, but we know one thing very clear and that is that we will never give up on our fight for the rights of the Pashtuns.”  The military so far has exercised utmost prudence in this matter, but surreptitiously, it is signalling a hardnosed approach to the demands of the Pashtuns who suspect Pakistani military of subverting their liberties. The military, for example, has reorganised its ‘good Taliban’ in the ‘security committee’ in the tribal areas to eliminate members of the movement.  For fear of an entrenched pro-separatist sentiments among the ethnic Baluchs and Pashtuns, the country’s military is going to deploy an additional 60.000 troops to boost its patrols of Pakistan’s disputed border with Afghanistan known as the Durand Line.  The role of Imran Khan in dealing with the Pashtun uprising is yet to be seen.  

However, one thing is clear: whatever the clownish antics of Imran khan, the Pakistan’s military will run the show while the fascinated crowd will be joined by the United State as an impotent superpower (at least in its approach to Pakistan).  

Dr Ehsan Azari Stanizai is a Lecturer in Literary Theory at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), Australia.

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