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Opinion An attempt on the life of Imran Khan pushes Pakistan into a fresh crisis

Former prime minister Imran Khan talks with the media at a hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, on Friday, a day after an assassination attempt on his life. (Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images)

On the evening of Nov. 3, former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan narrowly escaped death. An assailant attacked him at a political march, wounding Khan in the leg, killing one other person and injuring 14 more. Khan survived — but now Pakistan’s democracy may be facing new threats to its survival.

Khan is the third former prime minister to have faced an assassination attempt. The country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was shot in 1951; a suicide bomber killed Benazir Bhutto in 2007. They were targeted in public rallies, but Khan was luckily only lightly injured.

In the months before the attack, Khan himself repeatedly warned that he would be targeted by an assassin, citing a conspiracy cooked up by his political opponents. They rejected those claims. On the face of things, Khan has now been proved right. Yet indications so far suggest that the would-be killer acted alone, out of religious motivation.

Khan, however, has surprised everyone by blaming an entirely different set of culprits.

In the hours after the shooting, he has accused Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) official Maj. Gen. Faisal Naseer of engineering the attack on his life. Khan offered no evidence for his claim.

These are explosive allegations. Nominating a serving ISI official in a murder conspiracy means a direct confrontation with the whole military establishment. Khan has repeatedly taunted Faisal — whom he calls “Dirty Harry” — in the recent past. He has blamed Faisal for the torture of two of his close colleagues, Sen. Azam Swati and Shahbaz Gill, an academic and politician, during their time in custody. Khan has also claimed that he told journalist Arshad Sharif to leave Pakistan because his life was under threat. When the journalist was mysteriously killed in Kenya on Oct. 23, Khan again pointed a finger at the army.

Khan’s direct attacks on the army forced ISI Director General Nadeem Ahmad Anjum to convene an unprecedented news conference in which he refuted a series of Khan’s claims about army involvement in his own removal from power. Their statements were in sync with my own reporting this year, when I wrote that that the army chief had declined Khan’s offer to keep him in his job in return for his support.

All this offers additional confirmation that the question of who will become the new chief of the army is at the center of the current chaos and political uncertainty in Pakistan. The army chief is retiring at the end of this month. A few days ago, Prime Minister Sharif claimed that Khan contacted him through a mutual friend regarding the appointment of a new army chief. Khan wanted a consensus on the issue, but Sharif refused to discuss it with him.

Khan announced a long march on the capital last week. He was hoping to demonstrate his political power just as the government was preparing to appoint the new army head. Khan’s attacks on the army leadership concerned many in his entourage. One of his close associates revolted against the party’s anti-army stance — and was quickly expelled. Khan claimed that a revolution was in the making, but there has been little evidence of a general uprising against the government. This encouraged his opponents to say that Khan was doing all of this just to push through the appointment for army leader.

Khan is blaming the political establishment for conspiring against him — as he did again in a speech Friday. But he has been conspicuously silent about the role of the provincial government, which was responsible for his security. (The attack on Khan took place in Punjab province, whose government is controlled by his own party.) What’s most striking is that the shooter’s claims contradict Khan’s allegations.

The assailant was immediately arrested, and he quickly made a confession in which he said that he wanted to kill Khan for religious reasons. Khan’s party was angry that the would-be assassin’s statement was passed along to the media. The provincial government took no action against the local police for its lapses in security but punished them for releasing the attacker’s statement. The police have since released more videos of the shooter, in which he claims to be a member of a religious organization. Perhaps someone in his own provincial government is collaborating with his opponents.

We’re still a long way from the full truth. Only an independent judicial inquiry can clear up the circumstances behind the attempt on Khan’s life. Unfortunately, Pakistan is heading toward another political crisis at a time when the country’s economy urgently needs fixing.

The consequences for the country’s democracy are likely to be disastrous. Protest rallies broke out all over Pakistan immediately after the attack on Khan. His supporters have been chanting anti-army slogans and jumping on army tanks. If law and order continue to deteriorate, the army could have an excuse to take over in the “larger national interest.” Whispers of an army takeover are already in the air. Khan also said a few days ago: “Let there be martial law, I am not scared.”

He might not be, but I certainly am. Martial law broke Pakistan in 1971. Let the politicians start negotiations and find a solution out of this crisis. The army must stay away from politics.