The PTI chief may have played out his options.
Among those who oppose Imran Khan’s style of politics and the current strategy he is embarked on, there’s a sense that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief can’t think straight. This is not entirely correct.
Critics seem to be mixing up Khan’s objectives with the likely outcomes, some of which can be unintended and, as the fear goes, could pull in a third force and even derail the political system. This fear is not misplaced. But my point relates to the “logic” of Khan’s strategy itself, though I will argue that he might just have played out his options.
Khan’s strategy, as it began, was classic compellence, a concept given by Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, who explained the concepts of deterrence and compellence and the subtle differences between the two approaches within the framework of what he called “the diplomacy of violence,” which to him “is the art of coercion and intimidation.”
But while deterrence is the employment of a threat to discourage an adversary from starting something, compellence is an action by one actor, X, to force another, Y, to do something, invariably forcing Y to act in favor of what X wants. Put another way, while deterrence requires Y to refrain from acting in the face of a threat by X, compellence requires that Y act but only in favor of what X wants.
Deterrence involves setting the stage and then waiting. The onus for acting is on the other actor who, if deterrence has worked, will not act. X sets the stage, usually non-intrusively and non-provocatively, and then calculates that Y’s act, which has to be intrusive and hostile, will be prevented. In contrast, compellence requires X to initiate action and show irrevocable commitment to a course of action that can cease or become harmless only if Y responds and in line with X’s objectives. There are examples where stage-setting had deterrent qualities but the fine differences between deterrence and compellence are important, especially timing.
Khan has essentially run out of all options, short of spending the next year in and on his container. He must now either push the button or climb down.
Deterrence can be indefinite in its timing; compellence is not. For example: I am in a speeding car and your vehicle is in the way. The decision to avoid the collision is yours. I move; you get out of the way. The question is, when? Compellence must, therefore, have a deadline or it will not be effective. Also, the compellent threat must be put in motion for it to be credible. Equally, it must force the other actor out of the way to be effective. If it can’t and if the compellent threat is halted, the other actor has called the bluff. One can up the ante along the way, but then one reaches the point where one has to either push the button or climb down. Neither course of action is feasible. One brings punishment; the other fail-impotent.
Khan’s “Azadi March” on Islamabad was the initiation of action to compel the government to capitulate and accept his demands. The government responded with a twofold strategy: avoid a collision, but shun the maximalist part of Khan’s demands. The government has indicated that it is prepared to take action on some but not all of Khan’s demands, especially not the one that relates to folding up and announcing new elections. It has also played smart by allowing Khan to come to Islamabad, keeping him in good cheer by not using force against him or his flock and even allowing him to enter the Red Zone, which was initially termed a red line. The idea was to show, clearly, that the government is doing everything it can to avoid a showdown.
Simultaneously, the government has indicated that while it is fully prepared to address Khan’s demands for broader electoral reforms, it will not give in on demands that have more to do with Khan’s personal ambitions, i.e., resignation of the prime minister and dissolution of the assemblies.
Khan, for his part, has been steadily climbing up the escalation ladder: from no-entry to entry in the Red Zone, civil disobedience, the threat of resigning from the assemblies, and storming the Prime Minister’s House. (He had to back off from the last threat after the Army indicated that it will not allow anyone to enter any building in the Red Zone.)
Result: Khan has essentially run out of all options, short of spending the next year in and on his container. He must now either push the button or climb down. He is still trying to do both: PTI’s National Assembly members submitted their resignations yesterday but the party also indicated it is prepared to negotiate with the government. The problem with their negotiation strategy is that it still retains their maximalist position: the demand that the prime minister resign. It was okay as an opening hand but makes no sense at this stage of the game. That demand, for the government, is nonnegotiable.
Khan is now left with no viable options to mount a threat that leaves something to chance and can therefore coerce the government into accepting all his demands. The only option left with him, unless he chooses to ignore the Army’s signal and tries to forcibly occupy Prime Minister’s House, is to get to the negotiating table and force the government into effecting credible reforms that serve the larger interest of everyone, including the people of Pakistan in whose name Khan claims to have been acting. With these reforms, if the objective is not to somehow get Khan made prime minister faster than he can at this point, he and his party should be happy to have achieved something significant.