An old adage says you shouldn’t be changing your horse mid-stream!
Not questioning the logic of this dictum, Pakistan’s Premier Imran Khan reminded the people of its validity and logical applicability to the country at this juncture in its national life.
Imran brought it up, last week, while informing the people of his decision to grant a further three-year lease to the tenure of Chief of Pakistan Army, General Qamar Bajwa. The general’s mandated three-year term was to expire in a few months’ time.
The choice of a military chief in Pakistan is a matter of utmost national importance, given the ‘extra-curricular’ role army chiefs have played in the country’s political arena more than in the ken of their professional obligations and duties.
It’s rote knowledge to every student of Pakistan’s history that in its 72 years as an independent state, Pakistan has been ruled by soldiers of fortune—Bonapartes, in the real sense of the term—for at least 32 years, nearly half of its national existence. These three decades-plus were shared by four Bonapartes: Field Marshal Ayub Khan, General Yahya Khan, General Zia-ul-Haq and, last but not least, General Pervez Musharraf.
However, each one of these strong men had the innate sense—in the backdrop of military’s pivotal place in the Pakistani almanac of power—to know that ultimate power resides in the one that wears the uniform. No wonder that Ayub Khan relinquished the office of military chief only after elevating himself to the rank of Field Marshal, because an FM doesn’t retire. Zia-ul-Haq stayed on as military chief for as long as he lived. Musharraf handed his baton to his successor after eight years, that too under immense pressure.
But apart from stalking, and hectoring on, the national stage as de facto rulers, the Bonapartes and their factotums and acolytes are quite notoriously infamous for pulling the strings of political leaders from behind the curtain while maintaining a low, professional, profile.
It’s because of their habitual poking of the nose into the political arena—and particularly in the actual governance of the country—that the question of granting or not granting an extension in the mandated tenure of a military chief is nearly as important and sensitive as his selection, in the first place, if not more.
An extension in the tenure of the incumbent chief is largely interpreted as he and the country’s leader being on the same page. For instance, Nawaz Sharif, who as appointed Gen Bajwa as military chief, in 2016, didn’t give extension to Bajwa’s predecessor, Gen Raheel Sharif. The two were known to be at loggerheads. In fact, Nawaz, albeit baptised and nurtured under the wings of Bonapartes, was known for picking up fights with each of his military chief.
So, Imran’s unequivocal endorsement of Gen Bajwa for a second innings as military’s head honcho has been translated, across the Pakistani power spectrum, as he and the general being on the same page.
Imran’s fans and aficionados have hailed the move as an initiative in Pakistan’s highest interest. In doing so, they have finessed over the fact that back in 2010, when President Zardari had granted a similar extension to the then military chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, Imran, as opposition leader, had denounced the move as calculated to harm the institution of the army. Imran, then, had castigated Zardari for sacrificing principles for his personal gains; Kayani was known to turn a blind eye to Zardari’s myriad shenanigans and indiscretions.
However, Imran’s detractors and political foes are accusing him of succumbing to the military’s arm-twisting. Their tirade is in line with their oft-repeated narrative that Imran owes his ‘election’ as Pakistan’s ‘saviour’ to military’s patronage. Their punch-line against him seeks to deflate him as a ‘selected’ and not elected PM.
Imran has justified his decision because, in his words Pakistan is facing an ‘existential threat’ stemming from India’s action to alter Kashmir’s special status. Paying tributes to Bajwa’s ongoing campaign to rid Pakistan of the menace of terrorism, Imran alluded to the old dictum that one doesn’t change horse in mid-stream and guard in a state of war.
General Bajwa’s tenure, up to this point, has been unmarked by any controversy or blemish. He’s known to have a non-military mind that often thinks out of the box. However, Imran’s decision to extend his lease in office has become controversial—and the controversy is likely to have a long shelf-life—not because the critics fault his professional competence, but because of the past legacy of the military brass arrogating to itself the gratuitous role of a referee and arbiter of Pakistan’s political trajectory and mode of governance.
The episode’s bottom line is that in its guise Imran’s detractors, and military’s critics, see an opportunity to kill, proverbially, two birds with one stone. But what Imran has done is not novel in Pakistan’s history of civil and military power lines criss-crossing with a baffling regularity. The jury is out on who will have the last laugh.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat