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“I can see he’s not in your good books,’ said the messenger.
‘No, and if he were I would burn my library.”
– William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
A ruckus has been going on in Pakistan over the appointment of a new Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI).
What is generally considered a routine matter in which the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) recommends a name – or a few to choose from – to the Prime Minister, became a matter of intense speculation when the incumbent PM Imran Khan dithered to affix his approval to the change of guard.
With the ISI’s deep and dubious involvement in Pakistan’s domestic politics as well as its cross-border machinations, the appointment of its DG is always an area of interest but what really fuelled the rumour mills is that there is a virtually hybrid regime at the helm in Pakistan that is supposed to function like a well-oiled machine in such matters.
The army under the present COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa, had installed Imran Khan after an election heist in 2018 for the manifest purpose of using him as a titular civilian head of the government, while the junta actually ruled from behind this façade. There was supposed to be no trouble in this paradise, let alone a standoff between Bajwa and Khan.
So, what really happened? Is there much ado about nothing and will the two kiss and make up or would the rift deepen and the chasm widen?
The issue started when the Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR), along with several routine transfers and appointments, also announced that Lt General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, who is serving as the commander of the Corps V at Karachi will replace the Lt General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry as the DG ISI.
General Faiz (known thus in Pakistan) was appointed to command the army’s Corps XI, headquartered at Peshawar. The catch was that the ISPR had made the announcement before the PM’s secretariat issued the notification approving the new DG ISI’s appointment. For his part, PM Khan has always wanted to not only retain General Faiz as the DG ISI but to eventually appoint him as the COAS in November 2022, when General Bajwa steps down after completing his extended term.
Installing Imran Khan as its puppet PM had been the army’s longstanding project, fostered by several army and the ISI chiefs. But it was on General Bajwa’s watch that it came to fruition in 2018. General Bajwa first appointed the then Major General Faiz – his junior from the Baloch Regiment – in charge of the ISI’s Directorate C, where he did the legwork to undermine Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N’s) government and subsequently steal the elections for Imran Khan. Within four months of becoming a lieutenant general, Faiz was appointed the DG ISI in June 2019.
He replaced Lt General Asim Munir, who had a mere nine-month stint – shortest in the ISI history – as the director. The Bajwa-Imran-Faiz trio has since worked together without much friction, with the PM essentially doing the army’s bidding without questioning or invoking any rules and the brass ignoring his occasional tantrums and consistent incompetence as the chief executive.
So, what gives?
While the army would’ve had no issues with Imran Khan working with its chosen new DG ISI towards securing a second term, even by manipulating the 2023 elections, it frowns as an enterprise over the civilians – even its handpicked ones – personally teaming up with individuals in the general staff.
A PM trying to create his or her lobby in the army is seen as an attempt to undermine the outfit’s discipline. The ISI, as influential as it is, is still supposed to strictly follow its de facto remit laid down by the army, and it really does.
When established in 1948, the ISI de jure came under the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, and through that body reported to the ministry of defence and the PM. And there is no evidence to the contrary that this pecking order was every changed officially and legally. The very name inter-services – implied that the ISI could not be under any one service chief. The Australia-born British Major General Sir Walter Joseph Cawthorn, who had opted to join the Pakistani armed forces, and the Lucknow-born Brigadier (later Major General) Syed Shahid Hamid had conceived the idea of the ISI and patterned it after the British military intelligence apparatus, with a Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB) whose remit was the foreign espionage and a Joint Counter-intelligence Bureau (JCIB), which was responsible for counter-intelligence operations within the military.
General Hamid became the agency’s first chief and General Cawthorn its second and, to date, the longest serving head. Both laid the foundation for tremendous growth of the ISI from a measly, understaffed organisation in a single-story building in Karachi, to a robust outfit making its mark, but still reporting to the PM.
All of that changed with Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s 1958 martial law, with all powers vested in him and the civil and military bureaucracies – not just the ISI – reporting to him. With three more martial laws and another three decades of the army ruling from behind-the-scenes, the de facto reporting hierarchy and the remit became permanent. Contrary to the popular belief, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was not the first one to create the political cell(s) in the ISI. It was the FM Ayub Khan who deployed the JCIB – a precursor of the Directorate C – to manipulate domestic politics on his behalf. Bhutto indeed ordered the DG ISI major (later Lt) General Ghulam Jilani Khan – whom he retained in that position through his tenure – to create cells against his political opposition in the 1970s only to see it backfire and the wily generals impose a martial law.
Various civilian PMs tried to wrestle back the command and control but failed. In 1989, Benazir Bhutto appointed a well-read but retired Lt Gen. Shamsur Rahman Kallue as DG ISI to replace the jihadist General Hamid Gul. Failing to dissuade her, the COAS at the time, General Mirza Aslam Beg had the serving officers stonewall the retired general to the extent that he earned the moniker no-clue Kallue.
Similarly, Nawaz Sharif insisted and appointed Lt General Ziauddin Butt as the DG in 1998 as he suspected that the army-proposed General Aziz Khan would destabilise his government, only to be ousted a year later in a coup in which General Khan played a key role. In 2008, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government made a half-cocked attempt to place the ISI under the ministry of interior but withdrew it swiftly, after drawing the ire of the brass. Parliamentary attempts in 2014 and 2017 to legislate over the ISI’s structure and mandate were also blocked by the army.
The bottom line is that even though the ISI remains an intra and supra-services body, the army sees and runs it as one of its corps. In fact, with its burgeoning numerical strength and resources, the ISI is larger than most corps. The military historian Shuja Nawaz has noted:
“In addition to the three-star general head of the ISI, there are six two-star major generals responsible for each of the wings of the agency, more than even in a corps headquarters of the regular army. The overwhelming majority of the staff at senior levels is from the army.”
And each one of these officers – and even contractors – has his umbilical cord attached to the parent outfit. The Pakistan army is many things, but one thing it is not: ill-disciplined. The ISI remains a powerful agency in service of the army, not a policy-making entity. It prepares for and executes domestic and foreign policy goals set by the army brass, not define them.
Contrary to the perception, especially in the west, the ISI is neither a rogue entity nor a separate power center within the army. The chief is the army, and army the chief. Anything or anyone seen to be challenging the power and decision-making structure is not tolerated.
The brass acts collectively to protect the chief with or without his explicit orders. For example, the October 12, 1999 coup d’état was launched by the generals in the GHQ, while the ousted COAS General Musharraf, was still airborne en route from Sri Lanka. In the rare instances, where the army chiefs, like Field Marshal Ayub Khan or General Pervez Musharraf, eventually became a liability, it is the top brass’ collective decision to put them out to the pasture.
Imran Khan’s tight embrace of General Faiz and instance on retaining him on the pretext of the evolving situation in Afghanistan didn’t hold water with the brass. The army knew that the duo’s bear hug had multiple other reasons. The worst kept secret in Islamabad is Imran Khan’s delusional reliance on the supernatural for temporal decision-making. His wife is said to be a religious soothsayer who directs the PM whom to pick and when for key official positions.
Imran Khan’s second ex-wife had caused ripples when she wrote in her tell-all book that she had once found her “new husband lying naked on a white sheet, rubbing kaali daal (black lentils) all over himself…,” ostensibly to ward off a “black magic” spell.
Islamabad is abuzz with similar rumours that the PM Khan has been advised by his wife to cling on to General Faiz, at least for several months, if not more. But the army was not just miffed over their blue-eyed PM running the show through voodoo; it is also upset at General Faiz’s personal ambition to become the army chief in a quid-pro-quo with Imran Khan.
One could argue that an arrangement like that won’t be much different than the extension that General Bajwa squeezed out of Imran Khan after installing him. But the army apparently saw that aberration as serving its institutional needs at the time. Additionally, General Faiz is seen as too controversial due to his very public personal involvement in domestic and foreign policy affairs.
In a different matter, a high court judge had accused the general of asking him to manipulate judicial proceedings. The victory lap that General Faiz took in Kabul after the Taliban victory was also splashed across media everywhere. Most recently, Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and political heir-apparent, Maryam Nawaz Sharif accused General Faiz of planning, orchestrating, and influencing the legal proceedings against her. General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry, therefore, is seen as a liability by the army, which historically has had only one DG ISI – General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani – become the COAS.
So, what lies ahead? There has been a flurry of activity and assorted pronouncements from the Imran Khan camp.
A coterie of ministers went to see General Bajwa, after which the COAS met with the PM and the issue was ostensibly resolved, only that it wasn’t. As of this writing, the PM house has not issued any notification confirming a new DG ISI. Instead, the information minister has suggested that the PM may interview the individuals proposed by the army chief, before deciding on one. This by itself is going to be a huge departure from the past practice.
Whereas there is a precedent for the army submitting several names for DG ISI, the PM interviewing the “candidates” is unheard of. For example, in the final years of the General Zia-ul-Haq’s brutal dictatorship, the army had submitted 5 names to the PM Muhammad Khan Junejo, out of which he “picked” the jihadist General Hamid Gul. There is a possibility that the army may go through with some manner of a song-and-dance to let its puppet get over his tantrum. On the other hand, Imran Khan may see the “divine light” courtesy his spiritual advisor wife and sign off on General Anjum’s name. The third possibility is that the standoff continues till one side blinks, but chances are that it won’t come to that since neither Imran Khan, nor the army has any great alternatives immediately.
The opposition parties are rightly seeing this as a mere lovers’ tiff and not a battle for civilian supremacy. The army, under General Bajwa, was completely out of line to announce the DG ISI’s appointment without the PM actually signing a notification. On the other hand, the PM, who has delegated any and all domestic and foreign policy matters to the COAS, just realised that he has merely been carrying water for the army these past three years. The army might be itching to put Imran Khan in his place, and he may be craving a political martyrdom, but for now both might have to go through some therapy and reconcile.
The foremost opposition party, the PMLN led by Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam, has shown no inclination to clean up the hybrid regime’s mess. With a bleak economic forecast at home and a mega mess in Afghanistan, largely of Pakistan’s own making, the PMLN – or the PPP for that matter—do not appear willing to throw a lifeline to the junta. By all accounts, and his public pronouncements, Nawaz Sharif is unwilling to settle for a mere ouster of Imran Khan without the army actually allowing for a hard reset in the civil-military relations equation. The army, for its parts, would be happy to let another political party replace Imran Khan so long as the terms of contract are similar.
So, for the foreseeable future, a large party with popular support like the PMLN won’t step in to pull the army’s chestnuts out of fire. That means that the army will have to work with Imran Khan for now while preparing ground for another pliable dispensation. The trouble in the hybrid regime’s paradise has rendered several people as damaged goods. First and foremost, the too-clever-by-half General Faiz has zero chance of becoming the COAS even if he drags on as a lame duck DG ISI for a few more months. The collateral damage truly is General Nadeem Anjum, who became controversial even before taking the office he was designated for.
And while General Bajwa is likely to come out of this morass unscathed, he won’t be looking at another extension come November 2022. But above all, Imran Khan seems to have burnt his bridges with the army. He has worked really hard to get himself out of the army’s good books. And if he were still there, chances are that they would burn their library.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.