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Imran Khan and the Pakistani Deep State

Four months removed from a no-confidence vote that took Imran Khan out of Pakistan’s prime ministership, Khan has been charged under Pakistan’s terrorism laws.

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Four months removed from a no-confidence vote that took Imran Khan out of Pakistan’s prime ministership, Khan has been charged with violating Pakistan’s terrorism laws.

The former prime minister is accused of attempting to intimidate government officials in the judiciary and police force in a speech he made over the weekend about a case against one of his former senior aides. Khan claimed his former senior aide, Shahbaz Gill, was tortured while in police custody, as law enforcement cracked down on Khan and his inner circle following Khan’s attempts to avoid being removed as the country’s prime minister. The exact charges against Khan remain unclear, and Khan was granted a form of bail that is paid prior to arrest. Pakistani media regulators have now ordered outlets to stop airing the former prime minister’s speeches, citing alleged “hate speech,” as Khan gears up for a fight for potential reelection in 2023.


In order to become Pakistan’s prime minister in 2018, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had to form a coalition government with other parties in the National Assembly after PTI’s 149 seats fell short of the 172 needed for a majority. 

Despite an ambitious populist reform agenda, Khan’s tenure was marred by the nation’s ongoing economic distress. Khan inherited a balance-of-payments crisis, the third to beset Pakistan in the last decade. When Khan came into office, the Pakistani rupee was overvalued, leading to rising import–export imbalances and exacerbating the country’s current account deficit. The market for the Pakistani rupee corrected, however, and the economic shocks associated with the Covid–19 pandemic caused the Pakistani rupee to fall to historic lows. Double-digit inflation persisted through the nearly four years Khan was in office. Khan tried to counter these unfortunate developments by cutting and freezing prices on fuel and electricity, but to no avail.

The country’s economic woes undermined Khan and the PTI’s ability to keep a firm grasp on their coalition. Defections from the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid (PML-Q), which together accounted for less than 5 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, gave the opposition enough votes to go forward with a no-confidence vote to remove Khan as prime minister.

Khan also lost the support of the nation’s powerful military, which acts as a political entity of its own beyond the civilian-led government. The military took an ostensibly neutral position on the opposition’s efforts to remove Khan from office less than four years after the same opposition accused the military of rigging the 2018 election in Khan’s favor.

The schism between Khan and the military emerged from Khan’s personnel and foreign-policy decisions. In October 2021, Khan rejected a nominee forwarded by General Qamar Bajwa, the top general in Pakistan’s army, for the director general of Inter-Services Intelligence, seeking to keep Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed in that position. Eventually, Khan backed down and Bajwa’s nominee, Lieutenant-General Nadeem Anjum, was appointed military spy director.


The weeks-long political standoff left both Khan and Bajwa in weakened positions. Bajwa got his man, but this November, his second term as the army’s top general would come to a close. If Khan remained in office, Khan would have been able to replace him.

Another source of tension between Khan and the military was Pakistan’s approach to the United States. Though the U.S. is Pakistan’s largest trading partner, Khan entered office with an agenda that sought to reduce his nation’s involvement in the U.S.-led war on terror. As prime minister, Khan courted further investment from China via its Belt and Road initiative. He has also sought closer economic ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Just prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Khan met with Putin in Russia seeking to deepen trade relations, though the meeting proved unproductive. Nevertheless, Khan has continually argued for Pakistan’s independence in the conflict between Russia and Western-backed Ukraine.

At a political rally following a vote in the United Nations to condemn and reprimand Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, a vote from which Pakistan abstained, Khan said NATO countries attempted to pressure Pakistan into voting against Russia. "What do you think of us? Are we your slaves?” Khan asked in reference to those NATO countries in his speech. When the military, which generally seeks more cooperation with the U.S. than does Khan, failed to support Khan as momentum was building for a no-confidence vote, Khan said his removal from office was part of a U.S. conspiracy to relegate him for failing to fall in line vis-à-vis Russia.

But Khan, seeing that the no-confidence vote would be successful if it moved forward, tried to disband parliament in order to avoid the vote. Pakistan’s Supreme Court nevertheless ruled that Khan’s move was unlawful, and Khan was taken out of office shortly thereafter.

Khan’s opposition decided a return to the old political dynasties was the country's best way forward, and chose Shehbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League to be the country’s new prime minister. Sharif was Khan’s chief opponent in the 2018 election, and his brother, disgraced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, accused the military of tilting the scales in Khan’s favor. The Sharifs have been able to remain a powerful political family in Pakistan despite their corruption because of the hold familial and tribal ties have over the nation’s politics. Nawaz Sharif was removed as prime minister in 2017 and has been barred by the Supreme Court from holding office in Pakistan again because of a conviction stemming from the Panama Papers, a collection of documents that showed how the world’s super-wealthy hide their money from authorities.

America’s political dynasties are more prone to collapse than the families that have dominated Pakistani politics for the last few decades. Just two weeks ago, the Cheney political dynasty came to an end. Before the Cheneys, it was the Clintons, and before the Clintons, the Bushes. Pakistan’s political families are more insulated from external forces, scandals, and populist outsiders in part because familial and tribal allegiances remain central to the nation's political landscape. But there is another part of the equation that merits consideration from American observers.

Pakistan’s powerful military-intelligence establishment is often able to dictate the terms of civilian-led government and politics; at times, the maneuvering of Pakistan’s military establishment serves America’s interests in the region, other times it does not. The rule of military brass and intelligence bureaucrats is on the rise here at home, too. Those bureaucrats and military leaders, like their Pakistani equivalents, have their favored families and chosen horses. Both party establishments wink and nod at the intelligence apparatus’s efforts to spy on American citizens and give the military-intelligence establishment their desired wars. If we allow these players to continue to accumulate power, it won’t be long before America finds itself in Pakistan’s shoes, making necessary reform all but impossible to achieve.