UPDATE 5/12, 6:30 AM EST: Islamabad's high court has ordered former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan released on bail after he was arrested on Tuesday, sparking nationwide protests and violence.
Former prime minister Imran Khan's arrest by Pakistani Rangers on Tuesday has sparked unprecedented protests targeting police and military installations. The outrage reached a boiling point when protesters ransacked the Lahore Corps Commander's House.
Although arrests of politicians and large political protests are common in Pakistan, it is rare for them to target military installations.
Khan’s arrest is purportedly connected to the Al-Qadir Trust case, which revolves around allegations of fraud. However, many Pakistanis, including some of Khan's opponents, claim that the detention is a consequence of his clash with the security establishment. Khan has accused Major General Faisal Naseer of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of plotting (and failing) to assassinate him last November. But the optics of the Rangers taking Khan into custody from the Islamabad High Court has even prompted staunch critics of Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party to express messages of support on social media.
While demonstrators have been seen setting fire to military facilities, police vehicles, and even attempting to breach the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, the military appears to have made a conscious decision to lightly protect these installations and not respond violently in Islamabad or Lahore.
There are potentially three factors contributing to this approach. First, the military might be speculating that the protests will naturally lose steam over time. Secondly, the leadership could be aiming to avoid violent confrontations that could further endear the protesters to the general public or alienate their own officers and rank and file, many of whom may support Khan. Instead, they may assume that allowing the protesters to inflict damage on government property and residences will eventually turn the masses and PTI supporters within the military against them.
Furthermore, the demonstrations could be used as a justification to limit Khan’s participation in politics and place restrictions on PTI.
Lastly, taking no action might be perceived as a more powerful short-term response. Nevertheless, protesters in some areas have been met with tear gas and the internet is down in parts of the country. There are some reports of clashes in provincial cities, a situation that could easily escalate into more violence.
Imran Khan’s arrest intensifies an already escalating political crisis and adds fuel to the fire as the nation teeters on the edge of an economic precipice. The impact of this situation extends beyond Imran Khan himself, potentially dealing a severe blow to Pakistan's efforts to overcome its economic crisis and secure regional assistance, including an IMF bailout.
It also has potential ramifications for U.S.-Pakistan relations. In April 2022, Imran Khan was removed from the position of prime minister through a vote of no confidence. He attributed his removal to a U.S.-backed conspiracy for regime change. While some of his supporters interpreted this as a literal U.S. conspiracy, others understood it as a metaphor for the alleged desire of the military establishment to oust him.
To distance themselves from accusations of a U.S. regime change conspiracy, senior members of the PTI have recently been observed engaging in public meetings with U.S. officials. This crisis presents a dilemma for Washington as it strives to publicly support a healthy democratic process in Pakistan, while also maintaining cordial relations with all major political parties and relying on Pakistan's military establishment as a partner in counterterrorism efforts. Any public or private comments from Washington could potentially do more harm than good, and involving itself in what essentially amounts to a domestic political struggle would be unwise.