Is Imran Khan the Pakistani military’s ‘favourite son’?

Given Khan’s personality and policy positions, there’s reason to doubt that he is the army’s blue-eyed boy.

Imran Khan
Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party, speaks during an interview at his home on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan on July 29, 2017 [File: Reuters/Caren Firouz]

A big storyline in the lead up to Pakistan’s July 25 election has been the nature of the relationship between Imran Khan, the cricket star-turned-politician and leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, and the country’s powerful military.

According to the insinuations of some top leaders with the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, the military is working behind the scenes to engineer an electoral outcome that results in a government helmed by Khan. It’s a theory – one could certainly call it a conspiracy theory – embraced by many commentators inside and outside Pakistan.

Indeed, Pakistan’s army – which has held direct power for nearly half of Pakistan’s 70-year existence, and has enjoyed an outsize role in politics when not in direct control – does have a strong incentive to undercut the PML-N, with which it sparred frequently in recent years, and to help propel the PML-N’s main challenger, the PTI, to victory.

Indeed, events of recent weeks – arrests of PMLN members; dozens of parliamentarians throwing their support behind the PTI; the sentencing of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to prison less than three weeks before the poll; the sentencing of another top PML-N leader, Hanif Abbasi, to life in prison on drug smuggling charges just four days before the election; and the censoring of media outlets perceived to produce favourable coverage of Sharif – all point to the possibility of efforts by the military and a politicised judiciary to undercut the PML-N’s electoral prospects.

However, the notion that the military would actually be comfortable with Khan as its man in Islamabad is questionable. Indeed, given considerations of personality and policy positions, there’s reason to doubt that Khan is the military’s blue-eyed boy.

The army prefers a predictable and pliable civilian leader. Khan, however, is known for being mercurial and stubborn. Even some of Khan’s positive traits – like his charisma and supreme self-confidence – could be liabilities for the military, because these qualities suggest he would be unwilling to defer to higher authority. Cult of personality types aren’t known for being submissive.

Ironically, a potentially more palatable prime minister choice for the military hails from the very party that the armed forces may be trying to undercut. Shehbaz Sharif, the brother of Nawaz, would be the PML-N’s candidate for premier if it wins the election.

While lacking his brother’s charisma, he has a solid reputation as a capable and steady politician, and he gets along well with the military. Strikingly, in a recent interview with the Financial Times, Shehbaz Sharif called for the PML-N and the military to improve their ties. If the military truly has a favourite son, Shehbaz Sharif may have a better claim to the title than does Imran Khan.


Meanwhile, Khan expresses some views that are at odds with the military’s. To be sure, there are many convergences – from Khan’s strong desire to resolve the Kashmir dispute and his strong embrace of China to his refusal to criticise the military.

Khan regularly expresses strong support for Pakistan’s armed forces, and he has signalled his willingness to work with the army. “It is the Pakistan Army and not an enemy army,” he said in a New York Times interview in May. “I will carry the army with me.”

In a country where the military’s tentacles extend deep into politics, such comments from civilian leaders who aspire to ascend to the top echelons of power should come as no surprise.

And yet, dig a bit deeper, and the differences begin to emerge. Khan has taken strikingly positive positions towards Iran; he has lambasted US President Donald Trump for his anti-Iran speeches, and he has even said Pakistan should “become like” Iran.

Tehran is the bitter regional rival of Saudi Arabia, which enjoys a deep partnership with the Pakistani military. Indeed, last year, a former Pakistani army chief, Raheel Sharif, was appointed to lead a Saudi-led military alliance of Muslim countries focused on counterterrorism.

Khan also calls for better cooperation with India – a position that got Sharif in trouble with the army. Additionally, Khan’s shrill and strident anti-American messaging – he once vowed to shoot down American drones if he were to be in power – likely unnerves the military, which hopes to salvage Pakistan’s sputtering relationship with the US.

Furthermore, back in 2011, Khan faulted Pakistani counterterrorism efforts that entail sending troops to the country’s tribal region “to kill our own people with American money”.

In 2014, the army launched a new offensive against anti-state militants in North Waziristan even as Khan continued to call for peace talks with the Pakistan Taliban fighters that were then terrorising the country. The military is firmly behind these counterterrorism efforts – and welcomes the “American money” that helps finance them. Earlier this year, however, Washington suspended $1.1bn in aid amid worsening US-Pakistan ties.

In early 2018, Khan repeated his criticism that Pakistan shouldn’t be fighting its own people.

Admittedly, Khan – acceding to the advice of top aides and acknowledging his inexperience holding the reins of national power – may well defer to the armed forces, and particularly on matters of foreign policy that have long been the purview of the army.

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However, given his personality, it’s hard to imagine him happily ceding ground and giving in to the military; he’s more likely to defy than to defer. Accordingly, there’s a strong possibility that a Prime Minister Khan would spar with the military, exacerbating tensions in a civil-military relationship that already experienced ample strain during the last few years of the PML-N-led government. Such a dynamic could usher in a fresh period of political volatility in Pakistan.

Ultimately, for Pakistan’s military, the type of government is more important than the person that leads it. A weak and divided coalition is easier to influence and exploit than is a strong and united administration led by one party.

In a fractious coalition, even a strong-willed and determined leader like Khan may struggle to carve out policy space and act independently. In fact, there’s a fair chance that if Pakistan’s next government is a coalition, Khan would not serve in it. In an interview with BBC Urdu this month, Khan declared that the PTI would not partner with the PML-N or the Pakistan People’s Party in a coalition.

If the election does result in the need for a coalition, then there is a high likelihood that one of those two parties – the PTI’s two chief electoral competitors – would be in the mix.

With the July 25 election promising to be a closely contested affair and likely to result in a hung parliament – whereby no one party gains an absolute majority, necessitating the crafting of a coalition – the military may well get what it wants. As it so often does in a nation where it has always cast such a long shadow.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.