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Violent unrest has given the generals the pretext to crack down on Imran Khan’s political apparatus.

own making: the ascendance of Imran Khan, whom it had all but installed as a proxy for its own political designs in 2018. The ongoing crackdown on Khan’s movement in the wake of the May 9 violence is a short-term victory for the military establishment, led by Gen. Asim Munir. But the army has no solution for the fact that Khan remains overwhelmingly popular, and the dismantling of his party is unlikely to save the nuclear-armed country from its unprecedented political-economic crisis.

The crisis has been brewing for years – decades, depending on how you look at it. The military has long been the arbiter of power in Pakistan, even if the country since 2008 has had its longest-ever continuous period of civilian governance. More important, the army spent 10 years trying to bring Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to power with the assumption it would be a pliant proxy. But his maverick governance and desire to put loyal officers in top military and intelligence roles eventually rankled the senior brass. For example, Khan in 2019 fired Munir from his position as head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, where he had served just eight months of a three-year appointment.

But Khan had been groomed for so long that he seemed to have been forgiven this breach of protocol, and he still had the support of then-army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and of his own hand-picked ISI successor, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed. Khan needed Hameed as intelligence czar to ensure that he remained in power and so that he could eventually appoint him as army chief after Bajwa’s retirement. Khan’s own ouster seven months prior to Bajwa’s departure disrupted the former prime minister’s plans. Bajwa orchestrated Khan’s removal in April 2022 through a no-confidence vote in the legislature. It was easy to do at the time: Khan had lost a lot of popularity thanks to political mismanagement and a serious economic downturn. Hameed was reassigned, and the ISI top spot was taken over by Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum, a close Bajwa associate who continues to play a key role in neutralizing Khan.

Thus began Khan’s blistering criticism of the military establishment. The top brass may have turned on him, but he still had significant support among the officer corps and commanders, which he sought to leverage to weaken the army leadership. That support, however, was blunted by the appointment of Munir as army chief. With the military deck stacked against him, Khan shifted gears and refocused his attention on the demand for immediate elections. By then, the economy had grown worse, which, combined with his position atop a movement that saw itself as the champion of civilian supremacy over the military, caused his popularity to grow exponentially.

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