ISLAMABAD: As the political arena remains in a state of flux, all stakeholders are keeping a very close eye on how the security establishment moves to end the prevailing uncertainty, as it could set the course for political events in the months to come.

This is notwithstanding the top brass’ claim that they would like to stay away from politics; most stakeholders believe that they are not only involved, but given the circumstances, their role is necessary to resolve the crisis.

Senior figures in Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the government, in background interviews with Dawn, suggested that future events, particularly the PTI’s planned long march on Islamabad, hinged on the outcome of the party’s ‘backchannel’ with the military, which appears to be at a “stalemate”.

PTI Chairman Imran Khan recently acknowledged the existence of the backdoor talks with the security establishment, while other party leaders — including President Arif Alvi himself — have dropped similar hints over the past few days.

Ruling coalition confident PTI’s criticism of security establishment makes it unpopular with brass; Imran’s election victories strengthen his hand

The party’s engagement with the military begun around the time of the aborted May 25 long march, and Mr Khan is said to have ended his last push without staging a sit-in with the hopes of clinching a deal on early polls in the negotiations that had then just started.

Reportedly, around 10 sessions have taken place between the two sides over the past five months or so, but little progress has been achieved, even though the level of these talks has gone up — an engagement between Mr Khan and a senior figure in the military establishment took place directly at the Presidency not more than a few weeks ago.

Not only has President Arif Alvi played a pivotal role in these meetings — especially in getting Mr Khan and the brass to meet — but insiders suggest that this process has also been encouraged by some ‘friendly countries’.

The single-point agenda of these negotiations, at least from the PTI side, has been to get a date for early elections.

Mr Khan was on relatively weaker ground when the engagement began, but his strong performance in the July 17 and Oct 16 by-polls have strengthened his hand.

“The results are obviously good for us. They have shown that people are standing with PTI. This has improved our negotiating position,” a senior aide to Mr Khan told Dawn in a background conversation.

But still, there are still no signs that the military is amenable to PTI’s demand and would nudge the government to agree to early polls.

Mr Khan, who has been brandishing the threat of another long march for months, has now given a sort of ultimatum by saying that he would not be able to delay the march beyond the end of the current month. Although, he did not say it explicitly, it was obvious that he wanted to give the backchannel another chance and the end-October deadline was meant to emphasise urgency.

This hope of something coming out of talks, even though very slim, is based on an assumption in PTI ranks that some senior commanders believe that bearing the baggage and the “unpopular government” was not worth it any more and that early elections are the way forward, one senior PTI leader disclosed.

The thinking in the PTI camp, therefore, is that the party’s victory in latest round of by-polls and sustained pressure would ultimately strengthen this perception among the military’s ranks.

But on the other hand, the government seems confident that the PTI would not be allowed to hold the long march.

A couple of ministers who spoke to Dawn on condition of anonymity, however, did not explain the reason for their optimism. Their remarks, however, indicated that the government too was pinning its hopes on the army to stop the long march. Their assessment is that the PTI’s backchannel efforts won’t succeed because of “the anger against the party” among the top brass over its blatant criticism of the military.

There is one view in the government that sees a link between PTI’s long march threat and the upcoming appointment of the next army chief. Some influential quarters in the government, a source confided, have warned the prime minister against delaying the appointment.

“Proponents of this view believe that once a new chief has been designated, the long march pressure would automatically fizzle out,” the source said.

The ruling coalition, while acknowledging PTI’s popularity among the voters, still doubts its ability to bring down the government through agitation.

“The result is very much obvious if early elections are held. The government would not agree to this deal even if the military wants it,” a minister opined.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2022

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