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Question at heart of Pak political turmoil: Who appoints next army chief?

Imran’s “western conspiracy” cry has mined the anti-American vein running through the conservative new middle class of Pakistan, including in the army, which sees itself as a true middle-class institution.

pakistan army chief gen qamar javed bajwaThrough most of the last 75 years, the Pak Army has seen itself as superior to all other organs of state, and used its self-assigned job description as “defender of Pakistan's ideological boundaries” to intervene in the country's politics. (AP/File)

Over the past several weeks, even as it has counted its devastating losses in nationwide floods, Pakistan has been focussed on something else: the selection of its new army chief. General Qamar Javed Bajwa retires on November 29 — and there is intense speculation over whether he would step down or get an extension, and who might replace him.

Imran’s ambitions

Some of this is because of the nature of the Pakistan Army. Through most of the last 75 years, it has seen itself as superior to all other organs of the state, and used its self-assigned job description as “defender of Pakistan’s ideological boundaries” to intervene in politics several times — directly through coups, and indirectly by bringing in a political party or leader of its choice, or by meddling in the work of a government it did not like.

But the reason why the succession issue is more contentious than it has been in recent memory is because of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s newly complicated relationship with the army. Imran owes his stint as PM in good measure to Bajwa and former ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. But as the incompetence of his government became evident, and the army began to distance itself from the horse it had backed, Imran bet on Hameed as Bajwa’s successor, so that Hameed might return the favour by ensuring another term for Imran. This led to a standoff between Imran and Bajwa last October, when the army chief decided to replace Hameed as head of the ISI. For weeks, Imran refused to sign off on Bajwa’s choice to succeed Hameed, as Pakistani PMs have customarily done.

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Imran blinked eventually. But his days in office were numbered thereafter. The opposition parties were galvanised by the daylight they saw between him and the army chief. His ouster became necessary before he got the opportunity to appoint a chief of his choice, who would then work to win him another term. A no-confidence vote was set up. With the Bajwa-Khan honeymoon over, the army said it would remain “neutral” — and made no effort to shore up the numbers on his side. Imran lost, the first time a Pakistani PM had been ousted through a parliamentary procedure. Imran’s tirade against the army and the Shehbaz Sharif government only became louder thereafter.

In the months since then, Imran has been seen trying hard to divide the army. Claiming most officers and ranks were on his side, he has railed against the top leadership of the military, painting it as having engineered his unseating as part of an American conspiracy to bring in an “imported government”, and exhorting all “patriots” not to side with “evil”.

Response of Govt

Imran’s “western conspiracy” cry has mined the anti-American vein running through the conservative new middle class of Pakistan, including in the army, which sees itself as a true middle-class institution. Pumped by the popular support he has managed to rally since his ouster, Imran has been demanding early elections. Adding to the mood in his favour are the unpopular economic decisions that the Sharif government has had to take. The floods will only increase Pakistan’s economic woes that the recently granted IMF package — it was negotiated before the disaster struck — may not be able to mitigate. The government’s actions — filing terrorism charges against Imran for remarks against government officials at a rally, jailing journalists, taking TV channels off air for being “pro-Imran”, and prohibiting them from airing his interviews — seem to have only added to the former PM’s popularity.

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Sharif’s camp believes it is more politic to stay on till the end of the government’s term next May, by which time the government may manage an economic turnaround of sorts and recoup lost ground. Or that Imran, who faces questions about campaign funding and misappropriation of official gifts worth millions, may be disqualified from elections.

The PTI-controlled Punjab assembly resolution that Sharif should be tried for treason for consulting his brother Nawaz who lives in self exile in London on the next army chief is of a piece with the cat and mouse game between the two sides.

View from PTI corner

It was Imran’s aim to be in a position to appoint the next army chief. If earlier it was to win the next elections, now it is to have the army on his side after his comeback, of which he is convinced. This is why he suddenly wants Bajwa, rendered a lame duck by the smear campaign against him, to continue so it will not be an army chief of Sharif’s choice that he would be dealing with. Preemptively, he has insinuated that any successor appointed by Sharif would not be patriotic.

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“They want to bring their own army chief…they are afraid that if a strong and patriotic army chief is appointed then he would ask them about the looted wealth,” Imran said in a recent rally, repeating his allegation that all those in the ruling combine were “thieves”.

In a media interview, he said generously that Bajwa could be given an extension, and the succession question in the army should be left to the next government to settle.

However, it does seem that unless elections are held by the end of this year and Imran wins, his favourite would be out of the running. Lt Gen Hameed, recently transferred to Bahawalpur from Peshawar Corps where he had been posted last October, retires in April 2023. Those said to be top of the list are Lt Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza, Lt Gen Mohammed Amir, and Lt Gen Azhar Abbas. Bajwa and Hameed are still not being counted out entirely.

Imran’s attacks against the army should have gladdened the hearts of progressive elements in Pakistan who have been demanding a rollback of the army’s influence in national politics for years. After all, here is a leader who is trying to tame the powerful military. But it is quite evident that Imran’s is not a democratic or principled opposition to the military’s meddling in politics, but is born out of political expediency, the frustration at having been pushed off the “same page”.

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Irrespective, he has already weakened the Pakistan Army as an institution, showing it up to be a divided house and for the first time (barring the last two years of Gen Musharraf’s term in office), out of sync with its chief, something no civilian politician has managed before.

The Indian security establishment may see this as a good augury for the long term, but it should also be alive to the possibility that the fallout, including an institutional response by the Pakistan military to Imran’s challenge, might drag in the region.

First published on: 22-09-2022 at 03:28:58 pm
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