May 10, 2023
IntelBrief: Former Prime Minister Imran Khan Arrested as Chaos Envelops Pakistan
Pakistan’s former prime minister and chairman of the Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, Imran Khan, was arrested yesterday on corruption charges when a paramilitary group broke into a courthouse to detain him. Khan had been submitting biometric data ahead of a court hearing. Video shows Pakistani paramilitary troops apprehending Khan and placing him in a police vehicle. His arrest has sparked protests across the country, leading to fears of an escalation of political violence in cities from Karachi to Peshawar.
In addition to these new corruption charges, Khan also faces a dozen other pending cases, including accusations by the Pakistani military that he slandered a senior intelligence official by accusing the official of trying to have him killed. Tensions between Khan and the coalition government of Shahbaz Sharif have been mounting for months. In April 2022, Khan was removed from the premiership by a no-confidence vote. In November, he was nearly assassinated after his convoy was fired upon in Wazirabad, Punjab during an assassination attempt in which Khan was shot in the leg. Despite having no evidence to present to the public, he accused the Pakistani military of orchestrating the assassination attempt.
Following Khan’s arrest, Pakistan was convulsed by rioting and chaos as thousands took to the streets. Buildings and vehicles were set on fire and crowds marched through the street chanting in support of Khan. The politician is revered by many for his legacy as Pakistan’s cricket captain for his philanthropy, in which he provided free cancer care to vulnerable populations, and of late, for being an “anti-establishment” politician. In Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, PTI supporters descended on Pakistan’s General Headquarters (GHQ), the command center for the Pakistani Army, and blocked the city’s main highway. The police fired tear gas and used water cannons against protesters, while Pakistan’ telecommunications regulators blocked social media access in the country. In Islamabad and other cities, the Internet has been blocked entirely.
There are growing concerns that the security services may resort to more aggressive measures to tamp down protests. There are unconfirmed reports of shots being fired at protesters in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, where police have previously attempted to arrest Khan at his residence. In Quetta, a Khan supporter was reportedly shot dead by police. As Khan took to Twitter to question Prime Minister Sharif over the manner of his arrest, Sharif responded by accusing Khan of “blatant lies, untruths, U-turns, and vicious attacks on institutions” as well as of manipulating the judiciary.
Khan initially maintained a positive working relationship with Pakistan’s military and intelligence services after he was elected in 2018. But over time, the relationship soured as Khan and the security services, which traditionally hold massive influence within Pakistan, grappled for control of the levers of power. Since being ousted from government, Khan has continually called for new elections, and held rallies attended by tens of thousands of PTI supporters. There have been several efforts to arrest Khan since he was voted out of office, each of which has resulted in clashes with his supporters. PTI has enjoyed success in local elections throughout Punjab, and Khan believes that he could emerge victorious if new elections were scheduled. General elections are scheduled for later this year. Khan has become more popular as the government and military have attempted to crack down on him. During speeches, he has accused the Pakistani government and the military of engineering his downfall, sometimes alluding to the alleged “hidden hand” of Western governments, furthering conspiracies among his base of support.
The mounting turmoil in Pakistan comes as the country struggles to deal with the impacts of flooding, jihadist terrorism, and out-of-control inflation, as well as regional tensions following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and an assertive nationalist government in India. Climate-related disasters like flooding have left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis homeless. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, is resurgent along the country’s border with Afghanistan and has continually attacked Pakistani security forces. A suicide bombing targeting a mosque in Peshawar killed more than 100 people and wounded an additional 200 in February. Pakistan’s economy is teetering on the brink of collapse, with skyrocketing inflation, and on the verge of defaulting on international loans. Cascading political instability makes addressing these challenges far more complicated, as the Sharif government will be focused on bringing the current political crisis to an end. What happens next in this nuclear-armed nation is anyone’s guess, but the current trend lines are not encouraging. Pakistan could soon find itself slipping into state failure as its economy bottoms out, further attenuating the government’s capacity to form a coherent and well-resourced response.