South Asia

Domestic, Regional Implications of Pakistani Army Chief’s Term Extension

The pretext, as always, is regional security even though Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, and Pervez Musharraf lost both wars and territory.

Pakistan’s chief of army staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa, was given a three-year extension in his term, through a three-line notification, by Prime Minister Imran Khan earlier this week. Bajwa had assumed charge in November 2016 and was originally set to retire this coming November. The notification states that the “decision has been taken in view of the regional security environment” pointing implicitly to the developments in Kashmir and an impending US deal with the Afghan Taliban.

Bajwa is not the first Pakistani army chief to get an extension and probably won’t be the last one. Compared to a single six-month extension to the Indian army chief Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw in 1972, this would be Pakistan’s sixth COAS to get an extension, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani being the last one. Out of the six, four also declared martial law, granted themselves extensions and usurped the presidency as well.

The pretext then, as now, was regional security. Still, the Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, and Pervez Musharraf lost both wars and territory. General Zia-ul-Haq partially lost Siachen but scored a pyrrhic victory in Afghanistan, with a jihadist blowback so severe that Pakistan is still reeling under it. So much for continuity and a steady hand at the helm.

The real motives of dictators, and army chiefs who did and did not get an extension, have always been domestic, and it is no different this time around. In periods between direct military rule, the Pakistan army has wielded power from behind a civilian façade. After Musharraf was forced to doff his uniform and then leave the presidency, after massive popular protests, the army under Kayani opted to rule from behind the scenes.

It maintained a chokehold over all key areas of policy and governance, especially foreign and national security policies. Kayani and his Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI) Directorate, general Ahmed Shuja Pasha undermined and weakened the democratic dispensation consistently but did not induce a fall. Similarly, General Raheel Sharif and his ISI chiefs Generals Zaheer-ul-Islam and Pasha, rocked the former PM Nawaz Sharif’s government through engineered street protests led by Imran Khan.

PM Sharif, though weakened and ceding political ground, had declined to leave the office. His tacit and open views about asserting civilian supremacy were simply not acceptable to the army. Months before Bajwa became the COAS, a cache of documents, which became known as the Panama Papers, was released in which PM Sharif’s children were named for their offshore holdings.

File photo of Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan and chief of army staff General Qamar Bajwa. Photo: ISPR

The army got its lucky break in the form of the Panama Papers and orchestrated a series of legal proceedings against PM Sharif on graft charges, even though he was not named in those documents. He was convicted and dismissed from the high office, paving the way for the army to roll out its Imran Khan project.

Also read: Interview: ‘Pakistan’s Legal Options on Kashmir Require Security Council Support’

While the dictators and assorted army chiefs are blamed for destabilising and toppling democratic governments, the fact is that it is an institutional policy decision to preserve the army’s praetorian preeminence. An army chief is essentially the primus inter pares, bound to uphold the institutional interests. For example, Pervez Musharraf was in the air, en route home from Sri Lanka, when the army launched a coup against Nawaz Sharif in 1999.

Though Bajwa is given the dubious credit for the Imran Khan project, it is an institutional undertaking. Barring some personality-driven conduct, even the chiefs can do only as much as their outfit wants them to. As the army’s internal chatter indicates, they had been toying with the idea of Chinese or Bangladeshi model i.e. a soft coup and thinly-veiled martial law, wherein the army and the ruling party are joint at the hip and are assisted by the judiciary to weed out allegedly corrupt politicians.

Bits and pieces of this template were released through incumbent COAS’ informal meetings with journalists and also by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), and came to be known as the Bajwa Doctrine. Though never formally enunciated, the doctrine is a hotchpotch ranging from pledging support for democracy, to musings about economy and geopolitics. What, however, became evident in practice, was that the army was wrestling back every inch of the political space and each bit of freedoms, it had been forced to cede to the democratic dispensations since the ouster of Pervez Musharraf in 2008.

Just like Ayub Khan had come up with a ‘Basic Democracy’ model, Yahya Khan’s minion General Sher Ali Khan Pataudi plotted to bring “patriotic factions” to power, and Zia-ul-Haq had a party-less national assembly, the army’s plan under Bajwa is to have a watered-down, controlled democracy. This saves the army the hassle of imposing martial law and dealing with its domestic and international fallout. In fact, the army has only imposed martial laws when it could not manipulate and mould the political system to its will.

The project came to fruition when in 2018, Imran Khan was installed as the PM through an election heist. That is not it, however, as the project is supposed to have Imran Khan or an Imran Khan-like fig-leaf, for ten years, which ostensibly is the timeframe deemed necessary to consolidate and cement these gains.

A move that had pointed to the long-term nature of the project, and Bajwa’s extension, was the relatively recent appointment of the DG ISI Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry, who was the chief’s junior in Baloch regiment. General Faiz (known thus in Pakistan) was first appointed in-charge of the ISI’s political cell by Bajwa and is widely perceived to be the architect of giving the out-going Nawaz Sharif government a final jolt through protests by his propped-up religious zealots, and then engineering the electoral victory for Imran Khan by pre-poll and polling-day rigging.

Faiz was elevated to the chief spook slot, within 4 months of becoming a Lt. General, ousting General Asim Munir who lasted about nine months in that position, indicating that he was hand-in-glove with the COAS. More interestingly, Faiz would be one of the senior-most generals in November 2022, when Bajwa eventually retires, making him a top contender for the COAS, as thanks to Bajwa’s extension, a whole crop of current generals and corps commanders, would have retired by that time. It’s a doctrine that keeps giving!

Also read: To Unleash Jihadis or Take Diplomatic Route: Pakistan’s Kashmir Conundrum

By locking up political opponents like two former PMs, Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, an ex-president Asif Ali Zardari, Pashtun nationalist parliamentarians Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, and even Maryam Nawaz Sharif, and gagging the tele, electronic and print media, the junta and its minion Imran Khan, are trying to ensure that no protest movement can gain steam  and portend a threat.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was temporarily released from prison, arrives to attend funeral services for his wife, Kulsoom, in Lahore, September 14, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Mohsin Raza/Files

While it is a tall order for the battered and bickering opposition, the historical experience has been the bigger and longer the army’s overt political role becomes, the people at large start detesting it. While the army might think that it is behind a civilian veneer, the perception is that it has taken an in-your-face position not seen since Musharraf’s days. In Musharraf’s final years, the public anger against the military was such that the army had to send out a directive that officers and men should not frequent civilian areas, while in uniform.

The situation, however, is so grim, and censorship and repression so severe that only a few newspapers opted to offer a measly critique of the general’s extension. No politician of note has categorically castigated the move either. So, until the opposition gets its house in order, Pakistan, the region and the world would have to deal with the army under Bajwa. And the US is already at it.

Bajwa had accompanied Imran Khan on his recent visit and not only sat in the PM’s meetings with President Donald Trump but also held his own parleys at the Pentagon. While the US doesn’t get to have a say in the extension matter, so early in a potential thaw, a wink and nod is not outside the realm of possibility. The current centrepiece in the perennially transactional US-Pak relations is the impending US agreement with the Taliban and a subsequent withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.

Pakistan allowing the Taliban leadership to come to the table with the US, could not have happened without Bajwa i.e. the army’s consent. The quid pro quo seems to be Pakistan getting the US backing for a reprieve at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is holding its feet to fire, and the IMF, which has just thrown it a financial lifeline. Pakistan army, of course, wishes to return to the 1990s where it had a field day through its Taliban proxies, after the US left the hapless country, to the neighbour’s devices.

The precipitous withdrawal policy being sold in Washington, D.C. by Zalmay Khalilzad, needs to be reviewed. Khalilzad has the dubious distinction of misleading three US presidents. Right after their rise to power in 1996, Khalilzad tried to sell the Taliban to the US as a group that “does not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism”. He was also representing an oil company’s interests at the time, making the sales pitch even more slippery. The recent assassination of the Taliban lynchpin Mullah Haibatullah’s brother Hafiz Ahmadullah, inside Pakistan, indicates that the sanctuaries and the jihadist project are intact.

Also read: Is the US-Pakistan Transactional Relationship Back on Track?

US envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad speaks during a debate at Tolo TV channel in Kabul, April 28, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

It is also clear that the current Afghan government and the population at large are not willing to revert to the Taliban’s brutal rule. Trump’s two key objectives in the withdrawal are firstly, to make it a bragging point in his re-election bid, and secondly, to curtail the cost to the US exchequer. As a recent US Congressional Research report shows, the overwhelming ongoing costs are incurred by the US troops and logistics, not the Afghan forces and state.

No doubt, that the US and allies would need to support the Afghan state and security apparatus in the foreseeable future, but that would be at a massively reduced cost in the event of a withdrawal. To achieve that objective, the US need not throw the Afghans under the Pak-Taliban bus. The report itself identifies the support model deployed by the erstwhile Soviet Union after its 1989 withdrawal, which helped the Afghan government to fend off the adversaries for nearly three years and faltered only after the collapse of the USSR.

Unlike the cash-strapped Soviets, the US can easily support the Afghan state and the people, who are already fighting the jihadist terror. The US planners need to consider that Pakistan and its Taliban proxies are in it for the long haul and willing to wait them out, as Bajwa’s extension and his doctrine indicates.

While some have suggested that Pakistan may divert some of the jihadist proxies from Afghanistan towards Kashmir, it is highly unlikely. Even at the height of its hegemony in the Taliban era, Pakistan used Afghanistan for training its India-oriented jihadist. Deployment of the Afghan Taliban even to Kashmir was unheard of then. However, faced with blacklisting by the FATF, which would also have a bearing on the IMF loans, Pakistan would not be able to prosecute jihadism ad libitum, in the early part of Bajwa’s next phase.

Members of the Taliban attend a separate round of peace talks in Moscow in November 2018. Photo: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

That is not to say that something like the Mumbai attacks, is completely off the table. The developments since Uri and Pulwama have also forced Pakistan to recalibrate its escalation grid and rethink flaunting nukes at the drop of a hat. The country’s diplomatic isolation under the Bajwa-Imran clique is worsening that not even the Arab Islamic countries have come out in its support after India virtually annexed Kashmir. In fact, the United Arab Emirates has feted Modi.

While the Indian actions in Kashmir, are disastrous for the people’s rights and freedoms there, Pakistan appears to be boxed-in to the extent that it hasn’t even paraded its usual right wing zealot hordes, who used to come out ostensibly in protest, only to destroy life and property at home. A frustrated Imran Khan lamented, quite visibly from a position of extreme weakness, that after requesting Modi for talks for a year “there’s no point talking to India”. Pakistan’s disastrous jihadist militarism has really hurt the Kashmiris’ cause to the extent that Narendra Modi is getting away – at home and abroad – with his highly unconstitutional move and despicable repression.

Also read: FATF’s Asia Pacific Group Puts Pakistan in ‘Enhanced Blacklist’

One more thing that General Bajwa and his selected PM’s shenanigans have destroyed, is Pakistan’s economy. And it is likely to get worse. While the country’s current account deficit might have shrunk a bit, all other economic indicators are pointing in the wrong direction and would continue to do so, as the government has maintained an unparalleled record of incompetence and mismanagement.

The consumer, investor and business-owner confidence in Pakistan’s economy is at the lowest ebb, GDP growth rate trails Bhutan and Nepal, and inflation is in double-digits. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which was trumpeted as a cure-all for the economy, has stagnated, indicating that without opening regional trade, its potential cannot be realised.

But instead of solid economic reform, the Khan government has relied on populist sloganeering and targeting opposition politicians over trumped-up charges of graft and stashing abroad hundreds of billions of dollars, none of which has been proven.

Khan’s quid pro quo with Bajwa seems to be that he has been given a free hand to victimise their joint political opponents. In return, his inept governance and shoddy performance are forgiven. General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Imran Khan have been swimming together, but chances are that they would also sink together, if the current economic plunge continues.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.