Twelve years after Pakistan’s Supreme Court took on an army ruler for ousting its chief justice, the country’s higher judiciary has taken on another army chief, this time questioning the three-year extension given to him by the civilian government of Imran Khan. The bench, headed by Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, cut the extension granted to General Qamar Javed Bajwa, whose term expired on November 28, to a bare six months while ordering the government to bring in constitutional changes to lay down the tenure of the army chief and other terms and conditions of his appointment. In the process, the government, which had announced the extension back in August, was exposed for its ineptness and inability to get the paperwork right in a matter as important as this. Bajwa continues as COAS at the pleasure of the court. Is this a rare civilian moment in the affairs of military-dominated Pakistan? Not really. Although the court has thrust into the public domain the issue of extensions to the army chief, a matter that has haunted many previous governments and jeopardised their continuance, the reality is that Prime Minister Imran Khan, who cheerfully admits to being on the “same page” as the army, sees no risk from Bajwa, and in fact, wants him to continue.
In the last two decades, there have been two other instances of a Pakistan Army Chief on extended stay. General Pervez Musharraf granted himself an indefinite extension as COAS in 2001. Musharraf’s 10-year stay at the top, and his successor, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s, six years (including one extension) held up the careers of scores of officers in the Pakistan Army. In the present instance, it was a member of the public who went to court against the extension to Bajwa, The chief justice, then, took it on as a matter of national interest. At least 11 three-star generals would have retired by the time Bajwa’s three-year extension ended. The promotions of many others would have been held up.
The dissent within the army over this is perhaps not unconnected to the growing unease among officers that the institution and its leadership are seen on “the same page” as an increasingly unpopular civilian government. The sentiment was most apparent during the recent “long march” by a veteran Pakistani politician from a right wing religious party, who questioned the government’s silence on Kashmir and contrasted this with its enthusiasm over the Kartarpur corridor. After the court’s intervention, Bajwa’s position as COAS is much undermined. It is possible that the Parliament may not be able to agree on amendments to Article 243 of the Constitution that deals with the army chief’s appointment, as demanded by the court. An extension for Bajwa beyond the court-granted six months seems iffy. The battle lines are actually within the army, and the civilian politicians will only choose their side. It is not difficult to see which side those in the Opposition will pick. The next question, then, is: If Bajwa goes, can Imran Khan be far behind?