Turmoil erupts in Pakistan as Prime Minister ousted

PTI campaign rally in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Credit — Mnskhan

Political upheaval is gripping Pakistan following the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was elected to office in 2018 and removed on April 10. Shehbaz Sharif was sworn in the following day amid mass protests held by Khan’s supporters, who argue that the no-confidence motion in the legislature that ousted him was the result of a U.S.-orchestrated plot. 

At the end of March, the coalition supporting Khan fell apart and the opposition found itself in the majority in the country’s National Assembly. The forces opposing Khan’s government — principly Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz and the Pakistan People’s Party — immediately moved to call a vote of no-confidence. On April 3, the day the vote was scheduled to take place, Khan announced that President Arif Alvi had dismissed the National Assembly on his advice and that new elections would take place soon.

But this move was challenged in the country’s Supreme Court. The court ruled April 7 that the National Assembly should reconvene to consider the no-confidence motion. Amid a boycott by members of Khan’s Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI) party, just enough lawmakers participated to remove Khan from office and install Sharif. 

The armed forces of Pakistan have played a decisive role in the country’s political life since independence and frequently intervene in civilian affairs. Khan’s removal from office reportedly coincides with a souring of relations between his government and the military. Because of this type of interference from the armed forces and by imperialist powers like the United States, no prime minister of Pakistan has ever completed their full term.

The role of the U.S. government in Pakistan

The U.S. government has carried out a litany of crimes against the people of Pakistan over the course of many decades, backing brutal military regimes and sparking armed conflicts that left tens of thousands dead. During the so-called War on Terror, the Pentagon viewed the regions of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan as an extension of the war zone and waged a notorious drone bombing campaign. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, this drone war led to thousands of deaths, including up to 1,000 civilians. The constant presence of U.S. drones in the skies sowed terror throughout large swaths of the country.

The Pakistani military received $18 billion in “Coalition Support Funds” from the Pentagon between 2002 and 2018 and were an essential partner to U.S.-led NATO forces during the occupation of Afghanistan. 

Decades earlier, the United States also used Pakistan as a launching pad for aggression in Afghanistan. To fight the socialist government of Afghanistan and their Soviet allies, the CIA organized a right wing fundamentalist insurgency out of which the Taliban and al-Qaeda would ultimately emerge. Recruits, weapons and other supplies were provided to the insurgents across the border with Pakistan. 

Some of these groups would later turn on the Pakistani government and fight a bitter war with the U.S.-backed Pakistani military. This war has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Pakistanis.

Imran Khan’s PTI party rose to power on an anti-corruption platform and positioned itself as a fresh force to challenge the entrenched power of establishment politicians. Khan denounced the U.S. drone war against the country, and the party’s first big electoral breakthrough came in 2013 when it won the provincial election in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — the province of Pakistan most affected by U.S. drone strikes.

When the PTI triumphed in the 2018 general election, there was not a decisive break in Pakistan’s alliance with the United States. Instead, relations went up and down over the course of the Trump administration. When Khan first assumed office, tensions with the United States were high due to Trump’s announcement earlier that year that he would cut off aid to the country. But Khan attempted to improve relations the following year with a trip to the White House to meet with Trump and other top U.S. leaders, accompanied by the head of the military and the head of the country’s intelligence agency to show the unity of the entire Pakistani state behind their relationship with Washington. 

Six months later, Khan and Trump met again, this time at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “[W]e’ve never been closer with Pakistan than we are right now,” gushed Trump, calling Khan “a very good friend of mine.”

Collapse of the Afghanistan occupation

But relations took another turn for the worse after the Biden administration assumed office. Biden irritated the Pakistani government by declining to hold a highly-anticipated phone call with Khan, and Pakistan registered its disapproval by deciding not to attend Biden’s “Democracy Summit” in December. But most important is what happened in Afghanistan. The United States was dealt a humiliating blow as the Taliban overran the Afghan government in a lightning offensive over the summer of 2021. Elements of the Pakistani state, especially the intelligence service, have long maintained ties with the Afghan Taliban, and this became an even more bitter source of frustration among U.S. officials following their stunning defeat. 

The day after the Taliban captured the Afghan capital Kabul, Khan remarked, “What is happening in Afghanistan now, they have broken the shackles of slavery.” Khan’s government had earlier rejected the possibility of the United States using Pakistani territory to launch “counter-terrorism” air strikes on Afghanistan following the withdrawal of their ground forces. 

A month and a half before his ouster, Khan was in Moscow meeting with Vladimir Putin — a meeting that took place the day after the invasion of Ukraine. While in office, Imran Khan was not a consistent opponent of U.S. imperialism, nor a champion of the country’s working class. However, he did act independently of the United States in key areas. How direct a role the United States had in the political drama that played out over the past three weeks as Khan’s government lost its majority and fell will likely only become clear with time. 

What’s next?

Both the PTI and the parties that united to dislodge it from power are in favor of holding new elections soon. Now in opposition, Khan has positioned himself as a nationalist defending Pakistan’s sovereignty from what he labels the U.S.-installed government of Shehbaz Sharif, who comes from an extremely wealthy family that has long played a central role in the country’s politics.

At the demonstrations held by PTI supporters, protesters united around the slogan “imported government not acceptable” and chanted, “Any friend of America is a traitor.” Regardless of whether or not Imran Khan is inflating his own record as an anti-imperialist, these positions tap into widely-held sentiments across Pakistani society and have the potential to take on a life of their own. 

When elections are held at a still to be determined date, all forces in Pakistan’s politics will try to exert an influence on the outcome. This includes the powerful armed forces. Any attempts by the United States to interfere in this process should be opposed as yet another instance of disregard for Pakistan’s independence. 

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