Appointing the Pak army chief The Excelsior 20 Sept 2022 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar
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Appointing the Pak army chief The Excelsior 20 Sept 2022
In a recent TV interview, Imran indirectly stated he was acceptable to the idea of the current army chief, General Bajwa, being granted an extension to enable the next elected government to appoint his successor. This was rejected by the Shehbaz government, which considers appointing Bajwa’s replacement as its prerogative. This is because, in Pakistan, unlike other nations, the army has a country, which it controls either directly or through lame proxy governments. It remains answerable to nobody.
In no other country do visiting dignitaries rush to army GHQ as they do in Pakistan, aware where true power exists. It is only in Pakistan that the army chief, not the elected government, speaks to the US requesting for release of the next tranche of IMF loan and to Saudi Arabia for funds. It is an accepted fact that photo-ops are done in Islamabad and decisions taken in Rawalpindi.
The power of the army chief on the nation’s politics was amplified with Imran accusing General Bajwa of being behind his ouster. His statement in a public meeting, ‘Zardari and Nawaz Sharif want to bring their favourite as the next army chief because they have stolen public money. They are afraid that when a patriotic army chief comes, he will ask them about their loot,’ only highlighted it further.
The army was compelled to react to Imran’s accusations. The DGISPR, the public relations department of the army, responded strongly. It stated, ‘Pakistan Army is aghast at the defamatory and uncalled for statement about the senior leadership of Pakistan Army by Chairman PTI (Imran Khan) during a political rally at Faisalabad. Regrettably, an attempt has been made to discredit and undermine senior leadership of the Pakistan Army at a time when the institution is laying lives for the security and safety of the people of Pakistan every day.’
The DGISPR conveyed a warning to Imran to apologize and desist. However, it did not come to pass. Imran only put forth a conciliatory tone. In a subsequent rally, he announced, ‘if we do criticise our army, it is for their betterment. What we do is constructive criticism.’
In Feb this year, the Pak cabinet, then headed by Imran Khan, approved an ordinance which stated that anyone criticizing the army, can be jailed for five years. No court or government has been able to pass any judgement on enforced disappearances as they involve the army. In Jan this year, Shireen Mazari, then Pakistan’s minister for human rights, stated that the ‘missing persons bill’ has gone ‘missing,’ implying that the army does not desire that this be legalized through their senate. Again, it can only happen in Pakistan.
Imran is hoping to nominate the next army chief, which can be crucial for his political comeback. After all, it was the army which lifted him from obscurity to power, built his political party and broke the opposition. An anti-Imran army chief will spell his death knell in Pak politics.
In Pakistan, an army chief, once appointed, changes colours rapidly. All Pak prime ministers have been dethroned by army chiefs they have personally chosen. All Pak PM’s expect appointed chiefs to be grateful but that seldom happens. Little power is dangerous, complete power can be devastating. That is the story of Pakistan’s army chiefs. The ISI, which controls the political narrative, though officially under the PM, operates on directions of the army chief.
Hence, the army chief’s appointment is part of a national debate. Rarely have they been appointed on seniority. Most have been nominated on the hope that they will support those who appoint them. Imran gave an extension to Bajwa only to be dethroned by him.
Another unspoken role of any army chief is to ensure that power of his generals continues over Islamabad. His loyalty is never towards those who installed him or even the state but his coterie of generals. This safeguards his chair and ensures loyalty. It is no wonder that every general in Pakistan, apart from owning properties within the country, has assets spread across the globe, beyond the reach of the state. While political leaders are jailed and debarred, even on fake charges, never are army generals investigated, despite proof of corruption. The generals protect their own against all state institutions, as was evident when Musharraf was permitted to move abroad, despite being charged with treason.
An added reason for Imran challenging the generals is to push for elections without the involvement of the army. He is aware that the presence of army personnel in voting booths and counting centres (authorized by law) was the basis for his assuming power. Hence, he has demanded neutrality. He also continues to rant against the election commissioner, another individual appointed by him, but claimed to be done under pressure of General Bajwa.
Imran is aware that relenting in his accusations would provide space for him being charged and debarred from politics. His rallies, displaying his power has placed the state and the army on the backfoot. Imran banks on support from the army’s middle ranks and veterans, hoping pressure on generals would remain. Recently, the Pak defence ministry banned two veteran organizations solely because they tilted towards Imran. It would have been done on directions of Rawalpindi.
The latest accusations by Imran have only enhanced the divide between him and the country’s most powerful institutions. His dangerous game could spell his doom. It will push all institutions, to unite against him, thereby reducing his chances of returning to power. Simultaneously, Imran hopes that any attempt to side line him will be met by public resentment.
As the battle for the next army chief hots up, Imran’s rhetoric will increase. He is aware that time to influence the next chief’s appointment is running out. No wonder he stated in a press interaction last week, ‘Our patience won’t last long if you continue like this, we will have to give a call to the nation.’ For the current Pak government, apart from economy and floods, nominating the next army chief based on mutual acceptance is an equally major challenge, while for Imran, it will be stalling it.