After violent protests over his arrest, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was released over the weekend. However, this latest political crisis isn’t going away soon, says USIP’s Tamanna Salikuddin: “What we’re headed to is a clash between the very powerful military and the very popular [Khan].”
U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.
Laura Coates: Joining me now is Tamanna Salikuddin who's the director of South Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace where she oversees their work in Pakistan and broader South Asia. She joins us now Tamanna, thank you for joining us today. How are you? Good morning.
Tamanna Salikuddin: Good morning, Laura. Thanks for having me.
Laura Coates: I'm glad that you're here. You know, we've been following along with what's happening in Pakistan and the arrest of Imran Khan. Tell me a little bit about what's been happening, how we got to that point, and the implications now.
Tamanna Salikuddin: Sure, thanks so much. You know, Pakistan is no stranger to political crises and currently, the country is facing lots of crises, some may call it a polycrisis. They are on the verge of economic default, they have rising terrorism, but in the midst of that what's picking up everyone's attention is this political crisis. It's really the arrests last week is the proximate cause, of which was corruption charges against Imran Khan, he was arrested last Tuesday. But this is the culmination of a yearlong political crisis that started last spring with Imran Khan's ouster and a no confidence motion. As you know, he was serving prime minister he was voted out of office by the parliament. But that has led to, since last year, a steady drumbeat of Imran Khan accusing the military establishment, the current government, and even Western powers like the United States of a conspiracy theory to oust him to remove him from office. And it really is emblematic of larger, complicated civil-military relationship in Pakistan. Now that the actual latest round was the arrest of Imran Khan, which followed with two days of very violent protests by his supporters, including storming the army headquarters, burning down senior military officials, houses, and several deaths across the country. In a surprising move, the Supreme Court then released him in on Thursday, and then he's been granted bail. Right now, we're seeing protests by the current government and counter protests by Imran Khan. So, this is not over the crisis continues.
Laura Coates: In fact, he's been calling for continued protests, and he's had an interesting relationship with the military. You know, at first, he was supportive of a coup back I think, in 1999, then came to power in 2008. And ever since then, there seems to have been a change in the way the military views Khan. Tell me about that complex relationship.
Tamanna Salikuddin: Sure, you know, back in the day and early 2000s, I mean, he's been in politics for a long time. He's very famous as a famous cricket star, who helped to win a World Cup in the 90s. He's done a lot of charity, but he wasn't able to really win in parliamentary elections, he could barely win his own seat. It was only in 2018, and most observers will say with the help of the military, he was able to come to power and become prime minister. And so, they had what many called a hybrid regime where you had a civilian face, a very popular civilian face with Imran Khan, with the military establishment, which in Pakistan has long been known as the protector of the state, provider of stability. So, they were behind the scenes controlling some of the more important things like nuclear security, the counterterrorism policy, relations with their neighbors, and it all seemed fine until they had growing risks between them, when Imran Khan started to be more independent, do things the military didn't like both on foreign policy on appointments, etc. And since then, that rift has only grown and he is doing what, maybe no prime minister before him has done, it's, you know, naming and shaming the military, even personalizing it, just this weekend he was personally calling out the army chief. He previously has called out senior military officials by name, accusing them of assassination plots. I mean, this isn't a country where that was never the case before. And so, he's got a large, popular movement behind him. And what we're headed to is, you know, really a clash between the very powerful military and the very popular former Prime Minister Khan.
Laura Coates: So, is he popular or is the military that unpopular? I see from a lot of reporting there seems to be questions about the success of his tenure, and also is he actually truly an invested populist? Or is he someone who is the viable alternative to the military that's been accused of long-standing corruption? Or is it a little bit of both?
Tamanna Salikuddin: I mean, it is a little bit of both. I mean, I don't think there's any political actor in Pakistan that you probably couldn't find some sort of corruption case against. Look, it's two very different things. One, the military has largely been popular, especially when they made Imran Khan popular, they were popular. But Imran Khan's steady beat of accusing the military has really taken a lot of shine off the apple and Imran Khan, at the end of his prime ministership, wasn't very popular because he didn't do a great job in governance. Now, by taking him out of office, they've made him this political martyr. And so now, you could argue he is definitely by far the most popular candidate across the country. Part of that is because there is no real great alternative, but a lot of it has to do with his sort of mix of populism, a little bit of pan-Islamism. And then, at the same time, he's got a leftist, anti-imperial streak. All of this speaks to a Pakistani populace that's really fed up with corruption with bad governance, terrible economic, and what they see as a state that continues to repeat its problems and interestingly, a state that is far more isolated from other countries. You know, we aren't next door in Afghanistan so Pakistan's not high on the U.S. priority list. They've been somewhat isolated from their natural allies in the Middle East who have a closer relationship now economically with India. China remains in their corner, but it hasn't come to bail them out and they are sitting on the brink of a default.
Laura Coates: So, what is his relation with Russia? For example? I know there's been some conversation around Khan and that.
Tamanna Salikuddin: Yeah, I mean, they don't have a deep relationship with Russia. I think they have played the Russian debacle poorly. I think that was one of the portions of fallout. Imran Khan went and had this photo op with Putin, the day that he was invading Ukraine. I think Putin played Imran Khan there. They don't get that much from Russia. They're even you know, they're buying a little bit of oil, but relative to their neighbors, not very much. I think that is more of a red herring. You know, Imran Khan likes a good strong man. A picture with Putin is never bad. But that's another thing that the military has, you know, differed with him on.
Laura Coates: Really important to get your perspective and help us understand this much more. Tamanna Salikuddin, thank you for your time. I appreciate it so much.
Tamanna Salikuddin: Thanks so much.