The removal of Imran Khan as prime minster of Pakistan in April last year in a vote of no confidence by Parliament triggered a political realignment among Pakistanis that is having ripple effects around the world.
Networks tied to the two poles in this conflict – Khan and the country’s army leadership – have brought their battle to the halls of the US Congress and London’s Mayfair district, as well as TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.
The center of gravity is Khan, a celebrity cricketer-turned-philanthropist and populist politician. Since losing the support of Pakistan’s powerful generals – a process that began in late 2021 in part due to a conflict over army personnel changes – Khan has leveraged his strong organic media reach and popularity in the diaspora, introducing new volatility to Pakistani politics.
Now, the Pakistan Army is on the defensive in ways it hasn’t been in more than a decade.
Khan is testing whether the army can maintain its dominance over the political and information domains in a controlled, semi-democratic system. In just the past week, large parts of Pakistan have fallen under a mix of emergency rule and martial law.
The last time the Pakistan Army faced a serious media challenge was in 2007. Then, the heavy-handed treatment of the country’s deposed chief justice triggered a protest movement against military ruler Pervez Musharraf. The Lawyers’ Movement, as it was known, maintained a symbiotic relationship with Pakistan’s cable news channels, which emerged during Musharraf’s era. The movement was also supported by opposition parties.
News channels aired live coverage of the movement’s protests deep into the night. The Musharraf government took some channels off the air, but this triggered a backlash. While the military has since resorted to this tactic again – as well as with violence – it has also cultivated its own network of allied channels and media personalities.
Over the years, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Press Relations (ISPR), the public relations wing of the military, has become the country’s biggest media group, controlling journalists, making movies, and operating on social-media networks.
Some of this was deployed to counter what the army said was “fifth-generation warfare” from India, a world-leading disseminator of fake news. But the primary theater of battle in the Pakistan Army’s information wars was, and remains, at home.
By 2018, much of the army’s online support came from volunteers who were also supporters of Imran Khan. When the army’s split with Khan last year became clear after the no-confidence vote, these digital janissaries followed the ousted prime minister. But because many of these supporters come from army families, the resulting clash is very much one within the broader military clan.
Fight to claw back control
The army has since struggled to regain dominance of the information domain from Khan. Early in this crisis, it used coercive tactics against prominent journalists. Some were arrested. Others were forced to flee the country. One was even killed in mysterious circumstances in Kenya.
Those forced off air have since moved online. Disaffected retired army officers have also become social-media stars, gaining hundreds of thousands of subscribers on YouTube. They’re among the army’s most potent critics, often claiming to have inside information. The challenge is so serious that the army has, in a veiled reference to these men, referred to them as “externally sponsored” forces waging “propaganda warfare” against the military.
The army has also struggled to control Khan’s digital native millennial and Gen Z supporters. It’s one thing to manage a few dozen news channels. But today, Pakistan’s tens of millions of mobile=phone users are content creators or news channels on their own.
The army has responded with analog tactics – such as a press conference featuring the country’s military spy chief – only to find the fearsome official mocked in memes that go viral in an instant.
Now, the Pakistan Army is on a counteroffensive against the popular Khan and his digital army. Leveraging supporters’ violence after Khan was arrested on May 9 on corruption charges, the army has turned to brute force, including unlawful abductions. When released, Khan’s defenders issue public apologies clearly made under duress.
The government of Pakistan has tried to spin its own narrative – posting ads on TikTok, for instance, calling on Pakistanis to “condemn the acts perpetrating disgraceful incidents.”
It has also brought back old hands from the days of countering fifth-generation warfare, some of whom appear to be drafting pro-government counternarratives suspiciously crafted in immaculate English.
Intimidation may silence young Pakistanis, but it will only deepen the rift between the army and the broader society. A failing economy and growing authoritarianism will accelerate the flight of Pakistani professionals.
The Pakistani diaspora – once a reliable advocate of cooperation between their native and adopted countries – will begin to resemble Iranians in the US and Canada who lobby against the Islamic Republic.
In the end, the Pakistan Army. as it has done so often, will likely turn friends into foes, and win the battle but lose the war.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.