After all, it is Pakistan we are talking about, where assassinations and attacks on top political leaders – from Liaquat Ali Khan to Benazir Bhutto – have never been discovered in a transparent and credible investigation widely accepted by the people of the country. The who, what, why of the attack on Khan will therefore always remain entangled in controversy and counterfactuals. Frankly, more than who was behind the attack, its aftermath—its political fallout and implications—are more important and interesting.
There are multiple theories, all plausible, about who Khan could have been targeted.
There is the “false flag” theory, according to which it was a staged drama performed by Khan and his cronies to create a situation where he is able to put unbearable pressure on the government and military establishment to give in to his two main demands – early general elections and appointment of the next army chief with his consent.
The second theory is that he was targeted by the military establishment, which is outraged by the swear words thrown their way by Khan and his resistance to them. But if it were indeed the military, would an organization like the ISI, which has so much experience and expertise in the field of assassination, carry out such a clumsy operation in which the alleged attacker is arrested?
Moreover, Khan has been targeting the military establishment for more than six months. And yet the military has failed to silence him. The reason for that is that, like the rest of Pakistan, the Pakistani military is also divided in the middle on the issue of Imran Khan. The army leadership fears that if it takes action against Khan, it could lead to a backlash – an uprising among Khan’s supporters and a rebellion within the army’s rank and file – that will be extremely difficult to handle. Had the military refrained from doing anything against Khan because of this, would they have carried out this attack? Unlikely, but that’s not what Khan’s cult thinks.
The third theory is that the government was behind the attack. Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah has threatened to crush Khan. Rana hasn’t lost love for him because Khan and his cronies have booked Rana into a fake drug store to fix him. Rana has publicly threatened to throw Khan in jail and has warned that if Khan tries to disrupt the peace in Islamabad, it will have dire consequences. But neither Rana Sanaullah nor his boss, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, are people who hire hitmen to repel their political rival. Solving them through legal proceedings is one thing, eliminating them physically is quite another. Add to that the fact that the attack took place in Punjab, a province ruled by Khan’s party in coalition with Pervaiz Elahi’s PMLQ faction. The security of the march was the responsibility of the provincial government. They were the boss. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Federal Interior Minister have any say in what is happening in Punjab. But try explaining this again to the zombies that make up the Khan cult. Both Rana and Sharif are cult haters and they are quick to imagine the worst.
The fourth theory is that it was the work of a disturbed individual. Pakistan has more than its share of madmen. There is already a confession from a suspect who claims to have carried out the attack because he was outraged by the music that blared from Khan’s container, which continued to play even after the prayer calls (azaan). Similar lunatics have in the past targeted people like former interior minister and current planning minister Ahsan Iqbal, who was shot by an activist from the radical Islamist group Tehrik-e-Labbaik in Barelvi.
Yet another possibility is that a militant group – TTP, ISK, ISPP, etc. – was responsible. They have the range and reason for such an attack. They know that Pakistan is a powder keg waiting to explode and all it needs is a spark. The resulting chaos exponentially expands the space for them to operate. There is also the theory that Khan has so polarized Pakistan and made so many enemies that someone decided to put an end to this fitna (one who causes anarchy and unrest in society).
Finally, it could be the handiwork of agent provocateurs who want to see Pakistan descend into chaos.
With such a long list of suspects, it’s nearly impossible to get to the bottom of the attack, especially since the crime scene has been disrupted and contaminated to a point where any investigation for clues or reconstruction of the events has become meaningless. There are conflicting accounts of ‘eyewitnesses’ that make it look like a Pakistani version of Rashomon. Was there one shooter or multiple shooters? Was it fired from the rooftops or just from the ground? Was there firing from Khan’s container? Were the people injured by bullets fired by the shooter or by accidental shooting when the shooter was apprehended? and so on and so forth.
Regardless of how the investigations go and what they reveal, it is the politics that follow that will determine the fate of Pakistan. Imran Khan now clearly has the wind behind his sails. He will play for the gallery and milk the attack on him to advance his politics. He has already nominated the prime minister, the interior minister and the ISI Maj Gen in charge of counterintelligence and political management as the prime suspects. He is now demanding that they be removed from office or he will launch a nationwide movement. Khan will now also decide whether to end or continue his Long March. He knows that the military and government are hot on their heels and under enormous pressure. But he also knows that if they don’t succumb to the pressure, Khan will need blood on the street to force things in his favor.
In the future, Khan will become even sharper in his rhetoric. He will push things to their limits, and maybe even beyond. For Khan, the demagogue, his ego is more important than anything else. There is no way he will or can fall back from the pole he climbed. But the problem is that there is no way the government or the military establishment can give in to its demands and tantrums. To do this would be to write their own political epitaph. The military will not be averse to a tactical withdrawal from the political realm, but not if it means giving in to someone like Khan, who divides the army, politicizes it and tries to create his ‘Tiger Force’. The military also fears the irreparable damage Khan will do to Pakistan if he returns to power. Khan has ruined Pakistan’s economy and its relations with countries like Saudi Arabia, China and the US, all of whom Pakistan depends on for its economic survival. At a time when Pakistan’s economy is on the brink of economic and political collapse, the last thing the military wants is for Khan to return to power. The ruling coalition is also unlikely to agree to any of Khan’s demands. Their political and even physical survival requires resistance to Khan.
The stage is therefore set for an epic clash. Something is going to give, and very quickly. What follows can be chaos, a civil war-like situation, a military putsch, which is then opposed by political forces and people. It may sound like a doomsday warning, but perhaps we are seeing just the beginning of the unraveling of the Pakistani state.
The author is a Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of this publication.
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