Game on in Pakistan The Statesman 19 Oct 2021 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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Game on in Pakistan The Statesman 19 Oct 2021

          What is considered routine across the world makes headlines in Pakistan. Military appointments rarely get news coverage and are as controversial as in the case of Pakistan. For over a week, Pakistan media is buzzing with discussions on a possible collapse of the hybrid government (as they term themselves). Hybrid implies Rawalpindi decides, Islamabad implements. Every Prime Minister in Pakistan, Imran Khan is no different, proudly states that the army and he are on the same page, though they may be on similar pages in different books. This statement holds ground till the PM is overthrown, post which, the army becomes the enemy.

Never has a Pak PM challenged an army decision and got away, an act Imran Khan is attempting to do. Questioning the army chief invariably occurs during the latter half of a PM’s tenure, when confidence levels rise. Every Pak PM appoints an army chief of his choice, who ultimately becomes his nemesis and removes him from power. Historically, no Pak PM has completed his full tenure.

At the centre of the current army-political rift is the appointment of the head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. The DG ISI is the internal manipulator of politicians, political parties and religious groups, which can threaten sitting governments, apart from controlling externally operating terrorist groups. He also indirectly controls the media and courts. This makes the individual the second most powerful person in Pakistan, after the army chief. As per Pak laws, the DG ISI, an army Lt General rank officer, is supposed to function under the Prime Minister, though he operates under the directions of the army chief. Hence, as a corollary he is to be selected by the PM, a policy which is never followed. The PM is just a rubber stamp to sign the army chief’s choice.

          The current DG ISI, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, had, in the views of the army chief, overstepped his brief, by visiting Kabul, without orders and created a Haqqani led government, which not a single nation is willing to recognize or support. This pushed Pakistan onto the backfoot and worsened its ties with important allies including the US. The rising internal instability in Afghanistan, due to lack of global support and recognition, is spilling across the Durand Line into Pakistan. There were other reasons too which had made the army top brass suspect Hameed’s intentions. The primary was his growing proximity to Imran, which created doubts on his intentions of becoming the next army chief.  

Legally, Hameed would be in contention for being appointed the next army chief, in case Bajwa retires as per plan in Oct 2022, without seeking another extension, and hence would need to command a corps. Employing this pretext, the army transferred him to command the Peshawar corps and appointed Lt Gen Anjum as his replacement.

          Imran refused to sign the appointment letter resulting in him discussing the issue with General Bajwa on multiple occasions. It must be remembered that the last time a PM (Benazir Bhutto) appointed a DG ISI against the wishes of the army, she was removed from the chair. Such is the concern within Pakistan on the growing political-military rift that its stock market dropped over 600 points and Imran Khan had to address his party, PTI’s core group, to confirm that the rift has been resolved. Rumours state that Imran wants Hameed to continue for personal reasons.

          For Imran, his second tenure is largely dependent on the continuation of Faiz Hameed as the DG ISI. Hameed had orchestrated his last election, pushed Imran’s opponents into oblivion and manipulated religious hard-line groups to the benefit of Imran. Most small political parties backing the wafer-thin majority of Imran are remotely controlled by Faiz. Faiz was also chastised by the Pak supreme and high courts. The supreme court for his signature on an agreement to end the strike by the TLP in 2017, displaying interference of the army in political affairs and the high court for attempting to influence judicial proceedings. Evidently, all these actions were in support of Imran.

          The worst kept secret in Islamabad is that Imran relies on his soothsayer wife’s decisions on who and when to pick an individual for key positions. In Hameed’s case, Imran was advised to continue with him for some time more, if not till the elections. Without Hameed, with whom Imran is close, his chances of re-election are in doubt. Further, Imran is suspicious that this change by Bajwa is to ensure his ouster. The other factor is that this is possibly the first Pak government, in a long time, which has handed over foreign and domestic policy to the army and is happy to do their bidding. This control over Imran made the army chief overconfident resulting in ordering transfers even before they were signed by the PM.   

Pakistan’s ministers, led by their information minister, Fawad Choudhary made multiple public appearances seeking to assure the nation and party workers that the rift had been settled for the moment and an appointment would soon be made. The delay in signing the approval has blocked all senior army postings for the moment. Hameed has yet to vacate his chair blocking the entire chain of moves.

Within Pakistan the wait is on to see who would blink first. General Bajwa has already stated that with three retirements due this month, approvals cannot be delayed. In case Imran rejects the appointment of Anjum it implies he is challenging the decision of his mentor, Bajwa, which cannot be allowed to happen. In case, he meekly signs the order then he has no standing left and would be taken to the cleaners by the opposition. A catch 22 situation.

Bajwa played his cards based on the belief that Imran is his puppet and would do his bidding. However, he did not cater for Imran’s belief in the supernatural and his inherent fears of being discarded. If Bajwa backs down, he would face the wrath from his own hierarchy. The game, though short, is on.