Khan averts a coup but remains in army crosshairs

An open tussle between Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa over a spy agency appointment has sparked a political crisis that some have speculated could trigger yet another military coup.

While Khan recently backed down and agreed to appoint the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) director general candidate nominated by Bajwa, the crisis is far from over and points to political instability ahead. On Tuesday, Khan agreed to appoint Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum to the post after days of resisting Bajwa’s preference.

Khan had preferred to retain Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, who helped him win at the 2018 elections and was pivotal in recent interactions with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, in the powerful position.

Analysts believe Khan wants Hameed to replace Bajwa as army chief when the latter retires in 2022, a key appointment of a loyalist who would be expected to help Khan consolidate his grip on power beyond 2023 elections. Hameed will remain in the powerful post until November 20.  

Tensions between Khan and the army top brass have been exacerbated by rising criticism the army faces from the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which has accused the military of having undue influence in and over Khan’s government.

Forced to weather political and popular storms, including over the government’s mismanagement of the economy, Bajwa’s army has gradually but decidedly distanced itself from Khan and his ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in recent months.

That, in turn, has pushed Khan to seek new sources of political support from within the wider military establishment. That explains his at least temporary insistence that Hameed stay atop ISI, a move that showed his plan to push his preferred candidate for army chief.

It has all broken down the until now prevailing narrative that Khan’s government is a civil-military “hybrid”, despite his rise through democratic elections in 2018.