Imran Khan wounded in attack at rally
Welcome to South Asia Brief. The highlights this week: Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan survives a reported assassination attempt, Russia tries to recruit former Afghan commandos to fight in Ukraine, and a new airline launches in Sri Lanka.
Pakistan’s Breaking Point?
Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan was targeted in a reported assassination attempt at a political rally on Thursday, suffering bullet wounds to the leg. Shots rang out while Khan stood on a container truck that was part of a convoy in Wazirabad, in eastern Pakistan. The politician had been leading an anti-government march expected to arrive in Islamabad next week. Several of Khan’s senior party colleagues were also injured, and one person was killed. Khan was hospitalized in stable condition.
In June, counterterrorism officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province controlled by Khan’s party, warned that terrorists were plotting to assassinate Khan. However, much about the circumstances of Thursday’s shooting remains unknown: who was behind it, how many people were involved, and the motive. Video footage shows a man tackling a gunman as he fired toward Khan’s convoy—suggesting that the attack could have been much worse.
This much is clear: Pakistan’s political environment, supercharged for months, has reached a pivotal and potentially explosive point. The attack on Khan represents a red line for his large and growing support base. Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership has clashed with Khan for months, and many of his supporters suspect their involvement in the attack. The state’s response will go a long way toward determining what comes next.
Khan, a former cricket star, entered politics in 1996 and served as Pakistan’s prime minister from 2018 until April, when he was ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote. During his early days as a politician, Khan’s laser-like focus on rooting out corruption earned him a passionate following, especially among disillusioned young Pakistanis. His political fortunes improved as he strengthened his ties with Pakistan’s military and catapulted to power.
When Khan ultimately fell out of favor with Pakistan’s army chief, his fortunes suffered; the army likely backed the no-confidence vote. Since his ouster, Khan has railed against the new government—and, more subtly, the military leadership—and cast his rivals as traitors.
The government’s crackdown on Khan and his supporters has only galvanized them, and his popularity has skyrocketed, even as he no longer enjoys the same support in high places as he did before. His rallies attract huge crowds, and his party has performed well in local elections.
Regardless of the circumstances of Thursday’s attack, the opposition leader’s popularity is poised to grow even stronger. He is a populist who enjoys mass appeal and will likely not be deterred. But making a return to leading his protest movement is a risky move: Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto suffered an attempt on her life in October 2007, only to be assassinated two months later. And only last week, one of Khan’s most well-known backers, journalist Arshad Sharif, was killed under mysterious circumstances in Kenya.
Pakistan’s politics have reached an inflection point. The government, with the help of a military that has lost public support but remains powerful, could now step in to negotiate with Khan to lower the political temperature. But that wouldn’t be easy. The government has rejected Khan’s demand for early elections—currently scheduled for October 2023—because it would likely lose. Pakistan’s prime minister and the military have condemned the attack, yet this won’t appease Khan’s furious base.
The attack on Khan also puts Pakistan’s army in the hot seat; it faces a difficult situation from a weaker position than it is used to. With angry Khan supporters already converging on military facilities in protest, military officials may be tempted to push Islamabad to agree to a compromise to avert unrest. But the military now lacks some leverage: It has lost popularity, and its current leadership is unsettled as it prepares to bring in a new army chief in the coming weeks.
Pakistan badly needs some form of de-escalation, but neither side has indicated a willingness to compromise. There is a real risk that Islamabad’s feuding political factions will instead find themselves on a collision course with no offramp in sight.
India’s infrastructure challenges. On Sunday, a bridge collapsed in Gujarat, India, killing 135 people. The tragedy was one of India’s deadliest public safety accidents in years. It offers a painful reminder of the persistent infrastructure challenges facing the country, even as major advances have made it the world’s fifth-largest economy.
For all the buzz about new forms of infrastructure, such as fiber optics and 5G, the country’s more traditional infrastructure—roads, rails, and bridges—is in bad shape. A 2020 study found that as many as 2,130 bridges in India “failed to provide [their] intended service” or collapsed during construction in the previous four decades. Some failures became mass casualty incidents.
These infrastructure problems aren’t unique to India, but these accidents are notable because of their frequency and because of the high policy importance they are accorded. In 2016, New Delhi admitted that the country had an infrastructure deficit valued at $1.5 trillion. Public spending on infrastructure has ramped up dramatically in recent years—to the tune of $1.4 trillion between fiscal years 2019 and 2023. Business leaders in India have described infrastructure constraints as one of the country’s biggest hurdles for investment.
Russia recruits former Afghan special forces. More information has emerged this week following reports that Russia is recruiting former Afghan special forces—many now based in Iran—to fight in Ukraine. (FP’s Lynne O’Donnell had the story last week.) Three former Afghan generals told The Associated Press that Russia is trying to recruit thousands of Afghan commandos, offering a $1,500 monthly paycheck and “safe havens”—presumably in Russia—for the former special forces and their families.
Russia badly needs troop reinforcements; they will find few takers abroad, but out of desperation, former Afghan special forces are among the few groups that might accept the offer. They have few prospects back in Afghanistan, where they and their families are under threat from the Taliban. Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that some former security forces had joined the Islamic State-Khorasan to fight against their shared Taliban enemy.
Pakistan’s prime minister visits Beijing. Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif arrived in Beijing on Tuesday, beginning his first trip to China since taking office in April. Pakistan hoped to secure commitments for financial assistance from China as well as pledges to revitalize the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Pakistan component of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which recently lost momentum due to Chinese security concerns.
China has a good relationship with Sharif, in part because his brother Nawaz Sharif was prime minister when the two countries formally launched CPEC in 2015. However, based on a joint statement issued after this week’s visit, the trip produced few substantive outcomes. Bloomberg reported that the two sides agreed to launch a new high-speed rail line in Pakistan; Sharif’s office indicated the project would start soon, but the joint statement’s language is more cautious.
Additionally, a Chinese foreign ministry statement noted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “great concern” about security in Pakistan—a reminder that the increasing risk of terrorism has given Beijing pause about making new investments in the country.
Under the Radar
Sri Lanka has a new airline: For years, the government-owned SriLankan Airlines was the country’s only international carrier, but last month FitsAir, a private enterprise, launched. The new airline will have initial flights to Dubai; Male, Maldives; and Trichy, India. It also envisions domestic flights in the near future.
That the airline managed to launch amid Sri Lanka’s acute economic stress is impressive. In a recent interview, FitsAir’s vice president, Peter Hill, noted that travel demand is picking up as the pandemic recedes and that the airline has worked out an arrangement to import aviation fuel so that it doesn’t have to use foreign exchange.
Still, it’s unclear how many Sri Lankans will opt to use the airline. Hill describes the airline as affordable, but he also quotes a $370 round-trip fare to Dubai—a seemingly steep cost for residents of a country experiencing one of the world’s worst economic crises.
That’s it for this week.