Tensions Escalate Between Pakistan’s Ousted PM Khan and Military

Pakistan’s populist opposition leader Imran Khan has written a rare letter to President Arif Alvi demanding an investigation into what he alleges are “serious wrongdoings” and political interference by top military officials, including the country’s spy chief.

The 70-year-old former prime minister survived an apparent assassination attempt last Thursday while he was leading a rally to demand fresh elections for his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI) in the province of Punjab. He suffered bullet wounds to his right leg and is recovering at home in the provincial capital, Lahore.

On Monday, PTI released a copy of Khan’s letter to Alvi in which the opposition leader repeated his allegations that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, the interior minister and a senior official of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had plotted the attack.

Khan claimed he had information from within Pakistani intelligence agencies that a plot was being hatched to assassinate him. The cricket-star-turned politician has offered no evidence to substantiate the allegations and demanded the three men resign to make way for an impartial probe into the attempt on his life.

The government and the military have rejected the charges as “baseless and irresponsible” and “absolutely unacceptable and uncalled for.”

In the letter, Khan lambasted ISI chief Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum and Lieutenant General Babar Iftikhar, head of the military’s media wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), for addressing a nationally televised news conference against him late last month. This was the first time in Pakistan’s history that an ISI chief formally spoke to reporters.

“Two related questions that should be examined are: How the head of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency can do a public press conference? How can two military bureaucrats do a highly political press conference targeting the leader of the largest federal political party?” Khan asked.

“You hold the highest office of state, and I am requesting you to act now to stop the abuse of power and violations of our laws and constitutions,” Khan wrote to the president, who is also the supreme commander of the armed forces of Pakistan. He asked Alvi “to identify the “guilty and hold them accountable.”

The PTI chief also criticized the ISPR for making statements against political leaders. He wrote that the role of the ISPR needs “to be clearly defined and limited to information related to defense and military issues.”

Neither the president’s office nor the military has responded to the letter.

A security official told VOA by phone that Khan’s letter is nothing but “twisting facts and figures for gaining political mileage.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, urged Khan to desist from levelling baseless charges and making “irresponsible” statements until an inquiry is held into the gun attack against him.

Khan was removed as prime minister through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April. He accused the United States of toppling his government in collusion with Pakistan’s powerful military and political opponents, without providing any evidence.

Washington and Islamabad deny any role in his removal.

Khan complained in his letter to the president that since the toppling of his government, his party has been confronted with “an ever-increasing scale of false allegations, harassment, arrests and custodial torture.”

U.S.-based expert Michael Kugelman described the letter as an extraordinary move, saying the former prime minister appears to be going over the military leadership’s head by directly appealing to the president to rein the military in.

“In practice, the president’s role is ceremonial and there’s not much he can do. Still, it’s significant that Khan has escalated his tactics beyond confronting the military directly to trying to undermine the military by appealing to its purported commander,” said Kugelman, the director of South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“Khan in effect is going full bore in his confrontation with the military leadership. But given that he retains support within some factions of the military and given that he is keen to win back more support from the military, these maximalist tactics run the risk of backfiring and working against his interests,” Kugelman cautioned.

Anjum and Iftikhar reiterated during their unprecedented Oct. 27 news conference that the military had no role in Khan’s ouster.

Anjum also accused Khan of pressing the military for “illegal and unconstitutional” backing for his government in the run-up to the vote of no-confidence. He did not elaborate.

The military has ruled Pakistan for more than 30 years since it gained independence from Britain in 1947. Former prime ministers and political parties acknowledge the military institution directs security and foreign policy even when elected governments govern the country.

In the news conference last month, Anjum admitted the military had made mistakes in the past but insisted it had recently decided to stay out of politics.

Khan’s popularity has grown dramatically since his removal from power. He has been able to mobilize tens of thousands of people at his anti-government rallies across Pakistan, enabling the PTI to sweep recent by-elections for the National Assembly — the lower house of parliament — and the Punjab legislature.

On Sunday, Khan announced his party will resume its protest march on Islamabad later this week from the same place where the gun attack had targeted him. He added that he will join the march in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, which borders the capital and where the marchers are due to reach in about 10 days.

The PTI protest march began on October 28 before being suspended last Thursday in the wake of the attack on Khan. The march aims to force Sharif into announcing snap elections in Pakistan.

But the government has rejected the demand, saying the polls would be held in October 2023, when the constitutional term of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, ends.

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