Imran Khan, Pakistan’s popular prime minister, has been ousted from power following a coup staged in the country. The Pakistani parliament replaced Imran Khan with opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif, an influential pro-British family member.
The downfall of Imran Khan was orchestrated with the support of Pakistan’s powerful military as the country’s army elite grew increasingly frustrated with the former prime minister’s foreign policy. Rallies in support of Imran Khan swept the nation, and members of his party left parliament.
The standoff in Pakistan is likely to continue for several months. The recent coup may also escalate tension in the entire region and trigger a major conflict involving Afghanistan, countries of Central Asia and Russia.
Imran Khan’s government first came under pressure in August 2021 when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. Pakistan, along with China, has been rightly suspected of supporting the Taliban both militarily and politically.
Pakistan’s security services have long nurtured the Taliban, who have a very intricate relationship with Islamabad. In addition to Pakistan, major regional powers (Russia, China, Iran and Central Asian states, except for Tajikistan) essentially accepted the Taliban’s rise to power. These countries were betting that the predominantly Pashtun nationalists and Taliban Islamists would gain control of the country and bring about relative peace. So far, this bet has essentially paid off: the Taliban are willing to improve relations with their neighbours and give up their most extreme tactics.
Imran Khan's fate, however, was sealed a little later, on February 24, 2022. On the day Russian troops crossed into Ukraine, Mr Khan was in Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. When Imran Khan returned to Pakistan, ambassadors from twenty-two countries pressed him to condemn "Russia's aggression in Ukraine". Mr Khan refused categorically. "What do you think of us? Do you think we are your slaves who will do as they are told?" he replied.
On March 8, opposition parties led by the powerful clans of the Sharifs (from Punjab) and the Bhutto-Zardaris (from Sindh) brought a motion of no confidence against Imran Khan (a Pashtun from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).
However, this was only the beginning. On March 21, a shipment of 140 tons of cargo arrived in Tashkent from India for the first time. The shipment transited through Pakistan and Afghanistan and mainly consisted of sugar. The issue is not about sugar but the possibility of shipping cargo along this route - this route is of strategic importance to Moscow following the West's economic blockade of Russia. Pakistan is a key link in this supply chain.
That same day, March 21, Pakistan’s army chief, General Bajwa, and the head of the intelligence services (ISI), Lt General Anjum, met with Imran Khan and called for his immediate resignation. It is worth noting that General Bajwa had met with CIA chief William Burns the day before. General Bajwa previously advocated closer ties with Moscow. Still, after this meeting, he said that "Russian aggression has no justification" and "the invasion must be stopped immediately", adding that "half of Ukraine" was destroyed. In addition, General Bajwa stressed the importance of a strategic relationship with the United States.
Early in April, Imran Khan went on to dissolve parliament and called for a snap election. However, parliament did not comply and submitted a petition to the Supreme Court, which sided with parliament. As a result, on April 10, Imran Khan was ousted from office after losing a no-confidence vote.
Mr Khan's downfall was mainly due to his falling out with the country's army and intelligence services elite. Shahbaz Sharif was sworn in by parliament as Pakistan’s new prime minister. He is the brother of former three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Convicted on corruption charges, Nawar Sharif lives in exile in London but plans to return to Pakistan in May. In the meantime, millions of people have taken to the streets to support the ousted prime minister and oppose foreign interference in Pakistan’s domestic affairs. Imran Khan has called for a new election.
How the strife in Pakistan ends remains to be seen. However, the new pro-Western government will undoubtedly oppose several vital cross-border projects for both Russia and China. These include routes from India to Central Asia via Pakistani ports, the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway, the Pakistan Stream gas pipeline, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and China's commercial and military presence in the strategic port of Gwadar.
There will be regional security risks, too. India has come under increasing pressure to sever its relations with Moscow. Any flare-up of terrorist activity in Kashmir originating from Pakistan may provide a compelling reason to adjust foreign policy.
In the meantime, factions of Afghan Tajiks defeated by the Taliban are becoming more vocal with the support of Western intelligence agencies. These ethnic groups intend to appeal to Islamabad to facilitate their inclusion in the Afghan government.
Moreover, the interests of Afghan Tajiks may be exploited by their supporters in Tajikistan, which will lead to retaliation by the Taliban against Dushanbe. In this connection, it is worth remembering that Russia has a military base in Tajikistan. Any escalation of tension in Afghanistan, especially in light of imminent famine, will inevitably spread into Central Asia, where Russia has a vital interest.
The primary objective of the Pakistani gambit may well be to get Russia to fight on two fronts, the second one being in Central Asia.