Pakistan Army in Political Crosshair

These are bad times for the all-powerful Pakistan Army. A troubled change of guard last November has not helped. It remains in the crosshair of those it has patronized and promoted. None seems to believe its public pronouncements that it is ‘neutral’ and not in the political game.

Yet, the supreme irony is that the muckraking among the politicians is aimed at not just the ‘establishment’ as the army-led combine that rules Pakistan, but at the army itself. The ‘institution’ is both honoured and hounded in the current zero-sum political discourse.

The recently-retired chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, continues to be targeted for his omissions and commissions during the six long years he held the office. Save for a stray interview, he has remained quiet in the face of calumny, including graft charges against his family.

Former Prime Minister Imran who engineered Bajwa’s three-year extension through the executive, National Assembly and the Supreme Court that demanded a change in the Army Act, regrets it as his “biggest mistake.”

Those who facilitated that extension now condemn their own move. That includes the ruling dispensation, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and partner PPP. Former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqqan Abbasi and Mushahid Hussain Sayed, senior PML-N officials, have demanded that the law under which Bajwa got the extension should be repealed and that no future military chief should be given any extension. 

The move aims to retain the space that the political class has gained vis-à-vis the army in the last two years. But it is unnatural, so “un-Pakistan-like” to put it stridently, for anyone who can see through the civil-military relationship and the military’s dominance. It is seen at the best as a passing phase. How and when the army will hit out, or rather manipulate circumstances and the course to its advantage is a matter of time.

In all this continuing melee, the army is silent. Barely a few weeks in office (since November 29 last year), the new chief, General Syed Asim Munir has said only the ‘correct’ things like defending the nation, the security being the top priority and a stray Pro-forma statement against India. 

He has refrained from saying anything remotely political.  He has made no known statement on the ravages of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that have caused scores of his men to be killed and maimed.

Nor has Munir commented on border clashes with Afghanistan. It is a far cry from Bajwa visiting Kabul last year or earlier in September 2021, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, then ISI chief, who famously intervened in the government-making in Kabul after the Afghan Taliban returned to power.

The principal perpetrator of the anti-army tirade is Imran Khan. His latest allegation is that the army continues with “political engineering” by getting smaller political groups and their elected representatives to join the two rival parties. The army has “not learnt a lesson,” he alleges.

For Khan, it is a heads-I-win-tail-you-lose game. He behaves like the proverbial jilted lover in his relationship with the army under Bajwa. It is no secret — Khan has himself admitted much of it — that the Bajwa-led military worked to oust Nawaz Sharif in 2016 through the Supreme Court delivering a deeply flawed verdict in a graft case. Months of weak governments of Nawaz’s party with whom Bajwa openly did not cooperate, saw Khan’s accession to power in 2018. Bajwa and Hameed allegedly ‘engineered’ the parliamentary majority for the Khan-led coalition. Both Bajwa and Khan publicly said that they were “on the same page.” 

The turnabout came in end-2020 when an exiled Nawaz launched a frontal attack on Bajwa and the army – naming both specifically — via teleconference from London. But by the summer of 2021, the army’s moves worked and the opposition alliance faltered.

Ensuring Bajwa’s extension made Khan confident enough to try to expand his writ on the army.  The rift became serious when he opposed his favourite general Hameed’s transfer out of the ISI. When Khan’s lawmakers switched sides to defeat him in the first-ever confidence vote on the floor of the National Assembly in April 2022, Khan blamed it on the army. Khan’s criticism grew shrill thereafter. His baits to Bajwa, including a second three-year extension, were rejected. If Khan was spilling the beans, Bajwa also conceded last November that the army “unconstitutionally intervened” in politics but had now resolved not to. The army remains upset at Khan’s campaign against the USA, alleging that the latter ‘engineered’ his ouster through an “international conspiracy.” Only time will show if at all, the role the US played in ousting Khan. He has toned down his anti-American rhetoric, but not against the army.  The bottom line is that both Army and America are seeking to play their roles, separately and in tandem, to ensure that Pakistan’s political class nurtures democracy – the way it suits their long-term interests. That will determine whether the new ‘favourite’ will be from the PML-N, the PPP, or Khan will get a fresh chance, given his support among sections of the military and the country’s middle classes.