This past week, the upper and lower houses of Pakistan’s parliament approved three separate bills regarding the appointment, reappointment, extension, tenure and superannuation age of chiefs of the three armed forces.
The unholy haste and the uncanny unison with which the government and opposition – barring a handful of honorable dissensions – rammed those bills through parliament, left no doubt that it was a person-specific amendment for the army chief.
After all, not a single Chief of Naval Staff since 1979 or a Chief of Air Staff since 1986, has served more than three years, but three previous Chiefs of Army Staff (COAS) got extensions in the same time period.
The incumbent COAS, General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s extension had been imperiled by a Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) verdict last month. The SCP had allowed General Bajwa a six-month conditional extension and directed the government to address the terms of service of the army chief, through legislation.
That an all-powerful army chief’s extension had been challenged was a curiosity but a bigger curiosity is that the outfit and its chairperson who moved the petition are perceived to be close to army. Also, the outgoing Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Justice Asif Saeed Khosa taking up and adjudicating the matter days before his retirement, while previous legal challenges to such extensions were rubbished by the courts, was quite interesting.
The bigger and much more immediate concern, however, was the epic capitulation of the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PMLN) led by the three-time former prime minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and his father Asif Ali Zardari, and a few Pashtun and Baloch ethno-nationalist parties.
The biggest shock, of course, came to the supporters of the PMLN, who have followed their leader Nawaz Sharif and his daughter and political heir-apparent Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s credo “vote ko izzat do” (honour the people’s vote), which is an implied reference to the army undermining the public mandate over and over again and toppling elected governments.
Sharif had been ousted from power in 2017, through what was perceived as a judicial hatchet job, on behalf of the army. He was replaced by the army’s handpicked PM Imran Khan, who had no qualms about extending General Bajwa’s term by another three years.
The PPP, only a shadow of its previous self under its illustrious leader the late Benazir Bhutto, was not expected to put up any fight, and it certainly didn’t. It seemed like the three main parties were falling over each other to curry favour with General Bajwa and his almighty army. While there is no doubt that the PMLN has been virtually beaten to pulp by the army, it was still seen as a glimmer of hope against the army’s overreach, by its voters, supporters, and indeed the past critics.
But it seemed like the elder Sharif and his daughter had buckled completely and allowed the party faction led by the boss’ younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif – known for his army-appeasing posture – to make peace with the junta. Sharif, who is battling serious health conditions, and Maryam are out on bail, while some of their party stalwarts, including another former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, still remain incarcerated, for not toeing the army’s line.
General Bajwa and his protégé Imran Khan seem to have won this round, but have they secured the game? It may be a bit early to say, but it appears that they haven’t.
Unlike the previous dictators General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf, who extended their own COAS terms thrice or so each, and General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was given an extension by the PPP, General Bajwa’s extension not only became controversial outside the army but apparently within its rank and file as well. There is political reason to believe that another opposition leader, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman of the religio-political party Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) had launched a protest march against Imran Khan, at the prodding, if not behest, of General Bajwa’s detractors within the army. The maulana is an exquisitely shrewd operator who is unlikely to have bid against a winning horse.
And there is some weight in that argument. Riaz Hanif Rahi, the person who had challenged General Bajwa’s extension, is rather well-known for usually filing petitions that suit the army’s interests. But more important than that is the contemporary history which indicates that even when no petition might have been filed, the contenders to the COAS throne from within the brass, played their cards craftily to ease the incumbent army chief out.
In spring 2007, when General Musharraf unceremoniously dismissed a sitting CJP and later in the year suspended him again along with dozens of other justices of the superior judiciary and incarcerated them with their families, there was a spontaneous outpouring of support for the justices from within the legal fraternity and in the general public. It snowballed into a popular anti-Musharraf campaign, dubbed as the lawyers’ movement, within days.
Anyone who had watched that movement evolve, was struck by the fact that after an initial crackdown against the ousted CJP Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the junta did not come down hard on his restoration campaign itself. Huge rallies, bar association events and corner meetings calling for and plotting Musharraf’s ouster, went on without interruption from the military regime. It was not lost on any keen political eye that the man-in-waiting, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was in no mood to stop the campaign of attrition against his boss General Musharraf.
While there were multiple hypotheses at that time, including Musharraf’s overtures to India over Kashmir, which ostensibly were unacceptable to General Kayani and rest of the brass, it seems that the reasons for their inaction were more mundane and personal. Musharraf giving himself three extensions had abruptly upended many a career in the general staff. And while the army is the chief and chief the army, at times the chief might not always get what he wants. General Kayani’s laissez faire approach to the lawyer’s movement resulted in Musharraf first doffing his uniform and then stepping down as president, and culminated in restoration of the CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry.
It is well within the realm of possibility that before long, General Bajwa would quite likely be in the same predicament as General Musharraf was. Firstly, the verbiage of new legislation is rather dubious – or even mischievous – and gives discretionary powers to the president in the service chiefs’ appointments and extensions etc.
In the current parliamentary system, the president of Pakistan is a figurehead who otherwise is supposed to serve as a rubber stamp for the chief executive i.e. the PM. There is a strong likelihood that an obscure petitioner a la Rahi would challenge, in the SCP, both the text and the intent of this legislation soon after the extension is officially notified. And the wheels within the wheels would likely roll to activate political opposition to the extension and whatever else it entails in the Pakistani polity.
The informed opinion is that Shahbaz Sharif et al have presented themselves to the army brass as a viable political alternative to Imran Khan, whose governance is so wanting that even his backers are having second, third and fourth thoughts. With a tanking economy, a volatile regional and world geopolitical scene, the brass – minus General Bajwa – might be looking for a relatively steady hand at the helm. This scenario, if it were to play out, however, would require the PMLN standing completely abandoning its honour-the-vote sloganeering and agreeing to play second fiddle to the army brass, including the ones that intend to show General Bajwa the door.
The gist of it all is that for now, the fight for civilian supremacy over the praetorian guard has been upended by domestic realpolitik that seeks to oust Imran Khan and potentially his mentor General Bajwa, in the near future.
This, however, bodes ill for the proponents of the supremacy of the constitution, civil and human rights. It doesn’t augur well for the languishing economy either, as making common cause with the elements of the security establishment is bound to augment the latter’s narrow interests, not those of the public and country at large.
Regardless, the impending extension for General Bajwa has started a new round of political games instead of ending them.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki