Islamabad, Pakistan – Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has landed in a new controversy after the country’s powerful army reacted strongly to some “defamatory” statements made by him on the appointment of the new military chief.
Addressing a rally in Faisalabad in the Punjab province on Sunday night, Khan accused the government of trying to appoint a “favourite” as the next army chief.
The tenure of the current chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa ends in November this year. He was given an extension in August 2019 when Khan was the prime minister.
“They are afraid that if a strong army chief is appointed, a patriotic army chief is appointed who will ask them [about corruption], so it is because of this fear that they want to appoint their army chief,” Khan said at the rally organised by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
In a harshly worded statement on Monday, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistani army’s media wing, said it was “aghast” at the remarks, calling them “defamatory and uncalled for”.
The statement said the military leadership has carried out a “decades-long impeccable meritorious service to prove its patriotic and professional credentials beyond any doubt”.
“Politicising the senior leadership of Pakistan Army and scandalising the process of selection of the COAS (chief of army staff) is neither in the interest of the state of Pakistan nor of the institution,” the ISPR statement said.
Pakistan’s military establishment has ruled over the country for more than half of its 75-year history as an independent nation.
The ruling coalition, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), also condemned the cricketing icon-turned-politician’s remarks.
“He is now indulging in direct mudslinging and poisonous allegations against the Armed Forces and its leadership. His nefarious agenda is clearly to disrupt and undermine Pakistan,” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif tweeted on Monday.
President Arif Alvi, who belongs to Khan’s PTI, appeared to distance himself from his party chief’s statement, saying there should be no doubt about the country’s military.
“All chiefs of army staff who have been appointed in Pakistan were patriotic,” he said in a statement.
Khan fought back, saying he is following the “propaganda by the PDM cabal” and promised to give a reply in his next rally in Peshawar city later on Tuesday.
“I will give proper reply to all those who have deliberately been distorting my words to malign me. Enough is enough,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
Khan, whose government was removed through a vote of no confidence in April this year, has been holding public rallies since then. He says his removal was part of a “conspiracy” in which the United States was also involved.
Both the Pakistani government and Washington have rejected the charge.
Lahore-based political analyst Benazir Shah believes Khan’s statements against the military were part of a political strategy he has been working on since his removal from office. She said the remarks will not hurt Khan’s rising popularity among the people.
“Imran Khan and his party leaders have, in various interviews and political rallies, hinted that they believe the military played a role in Khan’s removal. Khan has often threatened to publicly name those ‘involved’ in the ‘conspiracy’ against him,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Previously, Pakistan’s military has been criticised for its oversized role in politics and governance and has been alleged to back Khan in the past. But Khan’s criticism is different. He is instead pushing the military to pick a side, and not just any side, his side.”
Following a political rally last month, Khan was charged with terrorism by the government for allegedly threatening the police chief of capital Islamabad and a female judge for her ruling against one of Khan’s top aides.
The controversy about Khan’s remarks on the army has erupted at a time when Pakistan is reeling under unprecedented floods which have killed more than 1,300 people and left at least 33 million displaced.
TV channel shut down
In a related development, Bol News, a Pakistani channel considered to be sympathetic towards Khan, was taken off air by the authorities on Monday.
The country’s media regulatory body said the channel was ordered to close because it “did not submit application for renewal of its licence”.
But Khan alleged the channel was suspended because it gave him and his party coverage, calling the move “fascist”.
“Imported govt has taken media and journalists’ censorship and persecution to fascistic levels. Now Bol has been suspended simply because it gave us coverage,” he tweeted.
Since his removal from office, Khan has been referring to the Sharif government as “imported”, a reference to his claim of a US hand behind the move.
“Message to all media houses is to blackout the largest and most popular national political party from mainstream media. Unacceptable,” Khan posted.
In the last few months, several journalists and TV channels who reported about Khan were temporarily taken off air. The popular ARY News channel was blocked for more than three weeks before it was allowed back on air on Saturday.
Experts have also blamed Khan for crushing dissenting voices in the media when he was the nation’s leader.
Defence analyst Ejaz Haider told Al Jazeera the appointment of the new army chief remains a “vitally important matter” for Khan and the opposition.
“Khan is signalling to the brass that if they don’t support him, he will bring the temple down on everyone. His statement, a clear attempt to make the next chief controversial, is part of that strategy,” Haider said.
“The narrative is such that the army itself has to be blamed for propping him (Khan) up for years as the rightful leader of Pakistan while branding others as thieves. This is now boomeranging on the army.
“He also has the support of urban middle classes, most of whom are sold on the idea that anyone who doesn’t stand with Khan and the PTI is a spoiler and must be denounced.”