Could a recent meeting between Imran Khan and Pakistan’s Army chief spell a new round of protests?
On March 31, Major-General Asif Ghafoor of the Inter-Services Public Relations tweeted: “Chairman PTI Imran Khan called on COAS. Imran Khan felicitated COAS on his promotion and appointment. Various issues came under discussion.”
At the same time, Khan issued a statement praising Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa for his pro-democratic stance and neutrality vis-à-vis national politics. Commentators aired carefully worded interpretations of the meeting: General Bajwa signalled his non-involvement in the Nawaz-Imran spat; Imran met the chief to sort out details of the FATA-Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa merger; the involvement of military leadership in political matters has decreased but remains a concerning factor.
There are several questions over why the meeting even took place: 1) If General Bajwa wished to meet the opposition after meeting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, why didn’t he call the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, PPP’s Khursheed Shah, instead? 2) Did he want to dispel any impression that he enjoyed a “special relationship” with the prime minister owing to his out-of-turn promotion? 3) Following Raheel Sharif’s principled neutrality, is the Army now signalling a reversion to a pro-Imran position? 4) Was the meeting intended to convey a message to the military’s rank-and-file, which is said to idealize Khan? 5) Did Bajwa realize that by accepting a request-to-meet from an opposition politician, he is now expected to leave his door open to all of them?
Most of these questions arise due to the PTI’s reported links with the military establishment over the course of its rise to national prominence. In 2014, Khan had staged his notorious dharna with the hope that the Army chief would intervene in his favor and ask Prime Minister Sharif to step down. Many thought the ISI, then under General Pasha, had encouraged Pakistani Awami Tehreek cleric Tahirul Qadri to protest with Khan to help force a change of government in Islamabad.
Either way, the dharna collapsed because General Sharif refused to bite despite having no visible nexus with his namesake prime minister. At the end of the day, one question remains: Will the meeting between Khan and Bajwa be a game-changer or will Khan miss the bus once again?