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The clock runs out on Imran Khan as Pakistan’s prime minister

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Ousted Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, in a July 21, 2019, file photo.

While Americans admired the cherry blossoms in Washington, Pakistan had a weekend of political confusion. For two days, the 220 million population of the nuclear-armed Islamic republic did not have a prime minister. The national assembly in the early hours of Sunday removed Imran Khan, the one-time international cricketer-turned-politician, via a no-confidence vote. The assembly met again today and voted in his successor, the opposition politician Shahbaz Sharif, but there could be challenges or delays, rather than a smooth transition. Last night there were large pro-Khan demonstrations in cities across Pakistan.

Whatever the outcome, the geopolitics of Pakistan — a long-term but difficult U.S. ally bordering both Iran and Afghanistan to the west and India to the east — will have changed. Khan’s political ineptitude was epitomized publicly by his decision to fly to see Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on the very day that Russian forces invaded Ukraine. But there have been a long series of disasters under his watch, including justification for the new Taliban regime’s ban on girls’ education and deciding economic policy without reference to the International Monetary Fund, which was trying to lend vital foreign exchange.

A central recent theme was Khan’s belief that Washington was trying to get rid of him, apparently based on a report by Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. who was told by a State Department official of Foggy Bottom’s exasperation with Islamabad. Such communications are the bread-and-butter of diplomacy, but Khan declared it to be a plot to overthrow him, rather than a “we do wish you wouldn’t do things like that” message.

Some commentators have labeled the weekend’s change as a judicial coup. The Pakistan supreme court’s view of the meaning of a key paragraph in the country’s constitution was different from that of the Khan-supporting speaker in the national assembly. The reality is that it was all but a classic military coup. Khan, who owed his election victory three years ago to the quiet endorsement of the Pakistan Army, had finally exasperated the generals by his meddling in foreign affairs, which the military regards as its preserve (along with nuclear policy).  

Crucially, Khan had been trying to select his own man to replace Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is due to retire in November, rather than accept the candidate of the top brass. It seems that Sharif was Bajwa’s choice for prime ministership. After a couple of bad experiences, the army doesn’t want the responsibility of running the country itself.

Comprehension of events is made harder for foreigners because the significance of the triumvirate of political positions that dominate Pakistan’s politics — president, prime minister and army chief — changes with time and personalities. The current president, Arif Alvi, is a former dentist and member of Khan’s party but he isn’t playing a significant role in the crisis.  Arguably, there is always an additional character lurking in the shadows: the head of the Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Gen. Nadeem Anjum’s current favored low profile should not be mistaken for inactivity.

Things to watch going forward include Islamabad’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, a traditional source of cash, although no longer the ATM it once was. Sharif lived there in exile with his brother Nawaz after an army coup in 1991. Aspects of the kingdom’s nascent nuclear program are similar to Pakistan’s. 

The main competition for influencing Pakistan’s geopolitics is between the U.S. and China, the source of most of Pakistan’s weapons and missiles. Beijing funds expensive infrastructure projects and backs Islamabad against India, its own main regional geopolitical rival. But institutionally, Islamabad seems to want to preserve its links with Washington, even though anti-Americanism runs deep.

Understanding the news in the near term may be helped by some familiarity with the vocabulary of cricket, the often-slow game where play is paused for afternoon tea and a match can go on for five days. On April 7, the Wall Street Journal quoted Khan as tweeting, “I have always & will continue to fight for Pak till the last ball,” noting that this was a cricket metaphor. Respected Pakistani English-language newspapers used headlines such as “Imran Khan clean bowled” and “Back to the pavilion.” I predict the next prime minister will have to play on a “sticky wicket.”

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

Tags Imran Khan Pakistani politicians Pakistan–United States relations Vladimir Putin

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