Pakistan’s ongoing political crisis has reached a crescendo this month with former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arrest and its fallout. The contours of the conflict are clear: it is Khan versus Pakistan’s military establishment. And the gloves are off.

Khan was arrested on May 9 from the premises of the Islamabad High Court, whisked away by dozens of paramilitary troops in riot gear, ostensibly for a corruption case. But the manner and timing of his arrest — coming just after he had doubled down on his allegations that a senior intelligence official was responsible for an assassination attempt against him last November — indicated that the arrest was more about the confrontation between Khan and Pakistan’s military which began last spring with his ouster in a vote of no-confidence.

The arrest set off protests on the same day across Pakistan, some of which turned violent and involved vandalism against military installations. In unprecedented scenes, protesters attacked the gate of the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, the corps commander’s house in Lahore, and other buildings, including the Radio Pakistan offices in Peshawar. At least eight people died in clashes with the police. The country’s telecommunications authority shut off access to mobile internet services and social media for several days. In response to the protests, police have arrested thousands of Khan’s party workers, reportedly harassing their families in the process; many of them are yet to be produced in court. They also arrested senior leaders of Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and key members of his former cabinet: his former foreign minister, finance minister, human rights minister, and information minister.

On May 11, Pakistan’s Supreme Court deemed Khan’s arrest from the premises of a court unlawful, and the Islamabad High Court granted him bail the following day. As he was released, he pointed a finger at one man: Pakistan’s army chief, General Asim Munir.

A fight to the finish

Khan’s confrontation with the military has now devolved into an existential, zero-sum fight between the country’s most popular politician and its most powerful institution. Khan, once the military’s favored politician, has since last year stoked popular resentment against the institution, which he blames for his ouster. The attacks on military buildings after Khan’s arrest damaged the institution’s veneer of invincibility. The military — long Pakistan’s sacred cow, its one institution deemed untouchable — has not taken kindly to Khan’s dissent. It has responded forcefully to the protests on May 9 — which it has called a “black day” — saying that violent protesters will be tried in military courts. Trying civilians in army courts would violate Pakistan’s obligations under international human rights law. But Pakistan’s National Security Council backed the military’s decision and its civilian government has lined up behind it, dealing a blow to the constitution and rule of law in the country. This week, an anti-terrorism court in Lahore allowed the handing over of 16 civilians to the military for trials.

In some ways, Khan’s popular support had acted as a buffer over the last year against the military’s assertiveness. But after the protests on May 9, the military establishment has reverted to its usual playbook for political leaders and parties that fall out of line in Pakistan. In this, it is using the pliant coalition government as its partner, as it has in the past with the government of the day. For its part, the government, in its eagerness to comply with the establishment, has been all too willing to forget the lessons of the past, when it itself had been at the receiving end of the establishment’s ire.

Senior leaders of the PTI, part of Khan’s inner circle, have been rearrested repeatedly even after being granted bail over the last two weeks. This week, they buckled under mounting pressure and have been leaving the party, one after the other. Shireen Mazari, the former human rights minister, who had been arrested five times over two weeks, was the first in the top ranks to quit this week. Fawad Chaudhry, the former information minister, followed suit. Party stalwart and close Khan aide Asad Umar announced that he was stepping down from his leadership positions within the party immediately following his release from jail. Among the PTI’s senior-most leaders, only former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, still incarcerated, remains with the party. Other prominent party members have also resigned. The government says it is considering a ban on the PTI.

Pressuring politicians to quit or switch parties has long been part of the Pakistani establishment’s playbook, which allows it to maintain an iron grip on politics. Khan had been the beneficiary of such maneuvering prior to the 2018 election. But the ferocity of the pressure and the speed of the defections this time around have taken even seasoned observers of Pakistan’s politics and its civil-military machinations by surprise.

Meanwhile, the coalition government has taken on a separate confrontation with the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, alleging that Pakistan’s judiciary is biased in favor of Khan. Parts of the judiciary are now pitted against one other.

At the same time, the economy is in dire straits. The country has been perilously close to default for months, and inflation reached a record 36.4% last month. The last tranche of an International Monetary Fund bailout program, set to expire in June, has been on hold for months as the fund waits for Pakistan to secure loans from the Gulf and China. The failure of the coalition government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to deal with the economic crisis has left it deeply unpopular.

No institution in the country seems capable — or willing — to take it out of its current mess.

What’s at stake

General elections are due in Pakistan by October. It is far from clear whether they will happen on time or whether they will be free and fair. It is apparent that the state wants Khan sidelined before then. After his ouster last year, Khan had rallied massive amounts of popular support — and demonstrated it in lively rallies around the country and in by-elections held in July and in October. His party, which had been in power in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, dissolved those two provincial assemblies this January in a bid to force early elections. But that gamble backfired: the state has refused to hold those provincial elections within 90 days as constitutionally mandated and has defied a Supreme Court order saying the Punjab elections needed to be held by May 14.

For a while, it seemed that in the usual conflict between the establishment and an ousted political leader, this time could be different. Khan had momentum because of his rallies, the unique demographics of his popular support (urban, young, middle class), his party’s savvy use of social media, and the extent to which he took the military head-on. But given the frontal assault on Khan and the PTI at this point, all of that may not be enough to substantially change outcomes for him. If history is any guide, it’s not looking good for Khan, his party, or Pakistan’s democracy. Quashing the PTI will leave behind a genuine and frustrated support base for Khan — one completely disillusioned with Pakistan’s establishment parties — that has no one to support.

What the United States can do

The Biden administration, which has limited its engagement with Pakistan over the last two years, should stand in favor of democracy in Pakistan, the rule of law, and the supremacy of its constitution, all of which are currently under threat — and not with the United States’ usual and favored partner in Pakistan, its military. This means the administration should explicitly speak up against violations of the rule of law and the country’s constitution — especially against the idea that civilians may be tried in military courts in the country — and in support of free, fair, and on-time elections in Pakistan this year. This is the only way forward for the country.