Regime Or Course Change

Regime Or Course Change
Was this a Booster shot (to boost Imran Khan’s popularity) or a Warning shot (to stop him from continuing on the Long March and lambasting the Miltablishment)? Or, if it wasn’t a conspiracy tied to either of these two possibilities, was it a Lone Wolf incident by an incensed Tehreek Labaik Pakistan supporter? There are so many loop holes in each explanation, and such high passions and powerful interests involved in this incident, that the jury is likely to remain out interminably as happens in such cases.

The fact that Imran Khan survived with only four pieces of shrapnel (and not bullets) in his leg supports the Booster and Warning shot theories. If someone had really wanted to kill him, Khan wouldn’t have got off so lightly. There was no bullet proof protection shileld on the container for Khan, no professional security cordon around it, he wasn’t wearing a bullet proof vest, etc., despite his own admission both before and after the incident that his sources in the security agencies had warned him to expect an attack on that day.

But if the Booster theory is to be believed, one must assume a conspiracy in the rank and file of his own supporters, including the Miltablishment. And if the Warning theory is to hold water, one must attribute the motive to the Miltablishment that is under his constant fire. In both cases, the common factor is the Miltablishment. This would explain Khan’s insistence on naming a serving two-star general in the ISI in the FIR and the reluctance of Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi (a long-term asset of the Miltablishment) to oblige him. In fact, Khan has been banging on about this same general as the proverbial “Dirty Harry” who has been roughing up Khan’s supporters and instilling fear in them.

Understandably, the Lone Wolf theory holds the field for the Miltablishment and Government because it lets them off the hook. That would also explain how and why the alleged religious extremist was facilitated in making a swift confession on camera about how and why he attempted to snuff out Khan’s life. This was perfectly in line with similar incidents in which high profile people like Salmaan Taseer, Ahsan Iqbal, Khawaja Asif etc., were attacked in the past.

There are other misgivings too. Khan says he was shot at from the front and bottom of the container, implying that there were at least two assassins, one of whom fired a burst from a rifle from some height. But if this was the case, it boggles the mind why he and several others on the container’s roof weren’t hit above the waist and shot dead instantly. But the Lone Wolf denies this, insisting that he fired a burst of eight rounds or so before his pistol jammed. Given the bullets’ trajectory from ground to container roof, this would explain why Khan was hit in the leg and shrapnel fragments hit several others or bullets whizzed past or grazed them. But it can’t explain why, according to the police, at least 11 empties were found by the police at the scene of the crime, unless it comes to light that a guard on the container shot at the Wolf and killed an innocent father of four in the line of fire.

Still, the Wolf may have been a lone shooter who was put up to an arms-length job at the behest of the Booster or Warning agent. This is a proven method behind political assassinations across the world. It leaves no trace and relies on the simplest explanation to close the case.

Whatever the facts of the case – and the truth may never be known or believed by the protagonists – Imran Khan’s popularity has surged in the midst of rage and incredulity at his “miraculous” survival as if by some Divine hand. If the unexplained killing of anti-Miltablishment journalist Arshad Sharif in Kenya kick-started the Long March, this botched assassination attempt will serve to put wind in Khan’s sagging sails. In both cases, he and his supporters have marked the Miltablishment.

Imran Khan’s response has been swift and focused. He has shrugged off his injury and held a press conference, accusing the Miltablishment and Government of conspiring to eliminate him. By naming the prime minister, interior minister and a senior Intel officer, he has simultaneously demanded “regime change” and “course change” from the Miltablishment.

But it is significant that he hasn’t hoisted his wheelchair to the container’s roof and continued on his long march, nor made a clarion call to his supporters to wreak vengeance on the Miltablishment and Government – those who have erupted on the streets are relatively few and spontaneous -- nor indicated when exactly he expects to resume his project for early elections. Is he worried that another attempt on his life may take place on the road to Islamabad? Is he waiting for his Handler in the Miltablishment to brief and update him on the way forward? Is he going to opt for some back-channel solution?

To be sure, Imran Khan has significant support in the rank and file of the Miltablishment. But a majority of generals in the ruling GHQ/Commanders clique, who have borne witness to his erratic and unscrupulous rule for four years and been the subject of his unrelenting personal and institutional attacks in the last few months, are wary of allowing him back into power. All are also united in stamping out internal and external dissent and destablisation. The PDM government, too, has dug its heels in and won’t be easily pushed out in a hurry. A twist in the tail of this situation is demonstrated by a scramble among the top generals for the coveted slot of COAS when the incumbent retires on 29th November, complicated by the latter’s bid to install his favourite and the government’s attempt to pick its own man.

The next three weeks are critical. When will Imran Khan resume his Long March? How much muscle will he be able to wield? Will there be violence and bloodshed? Will the generals stand by the government and risk further alienation and censure? If they can’t abide by either Imran Khan or the Government, how will they take the law into their own hands? And if they do, what will be the political and economic consequences? Or, to take a positive stance, will the Miltablishment, PDM and PTI succeed in a last ditch compromise to save the situation for state and society going forward into the next year?

We should know soon enough, but not without some scary brinkmanship and sleepless nights for all stakeholders.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.