Pakistan: Bajwa's Exit Will Not Herald Dramatic Shift in the Civil-Military Power Imbalance

Mohammad Taqi | 28 November 2022
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While the civilian leadership has a window of opportunity to wrestle back some of the political space lost to the 'hybrid regime', the state of play remains fluid.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who has been Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS), for the past six years is finally set to retire on November 29. Ending weeks of speculation, intrigue and wheeling dealing, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif nominated Lieutenant General Asim Munir of the Frontier Force Regiment as the new COAS. The country’s president promptly approved the appointment. The army chief is the most powerful person in the country and is virtually the ruler most of the time. Therefore, appointments to this post have never been a simple affair in Pakistan.

But this time around it was an unprecedentedly contested,  sordid, rancorous and public saga, thanks to the army’s disastrous “hybrid regime” venture that was presided over by the outgoing COAS. While the junta’s Imran Khan project was years in the making, it was spearheaded, secured and sustained by General Bajwa and the former Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI) – now a failed contender for the COAS, Lt General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry – until it was no longer tenable.

The trio’s original compact was for Khan to be the civilian fig leaf for a decade, while the army wielded the ultimate power from behind, with General Bajwa taking the first turn in an extended tenure and General Faiz (known thus in Pakistan) replacing him this month. But no battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy, and in this case, there was a plethora of adversaries and adversities to contend with.

First and foremost, the dynamics of political power in Pakistan are such that even the meekest of civilian minions have eventually locked horns with their military masters, time and again. The Imran-Bajwa affair was not going to be any different. While Khan’s insistence on retaining General Faiz as the DG ISI was the proverbial last straw, the ostensibly flawless master plan for the hybrid Valhalla hadn’t factored in the real adversities i.e., economy and the governance and how to tackle them. And that was because the brass obsessively hated the traditional political forces in Pakistan and wanted to neutralise and eliminate them at any cost, using any and all means.

In this mad zeal, the junta had convinced itself that its handpicked prime minister would not just remain subservient to its whims but will also be able to deliver on the economic and governance fronts. Imran Khan, on his part, told the army what it wanted to hear: he has the panacea for the country’s problems, and with the junta’s help he would can the politicians that they both reviled.

But this mantra – disparaging politicians and politics in the name of corruption – peddled by the army, affected not just the general public, especially the urban middle class, but also its officer class. Imran Khan knew that he has a devoted constituency within the armed forces and hobnobbed with a coterie of generals to have a veto – despite his ouster earlier this past April in a vote of no-confidence – over the selection of the new army chief. He is said to have been supported to the hilt by a group of officers allied with General Faiz. He riled the street and social media against General Bajwa in an attempt to pressure him, and by extension the coalition government led by the Shehbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), into appointing a general friendly to him.

When he failed to do that, Khan tried to stonewall General Munir’s elevation. The general, as the DG ISI, is said to have confronted Khan with evidence of corruption linked to his wife. Imran Khan retaliated by having General Bajwa – who was virtually gushing over him then – trot General Munir out of the directorate, making him perhaps the shortest-serving director general. He was replaced by General Faiz who, as the chief of ISI’s domestic wing, the Directorate C, was the architect of the 2018 election heist for Imran Khan.

While Imran Khan was not successful in having his way in the end, he and his backers have added an ominous dimension to the haggling over the appointment of a COAS. For the past decade or so, generals have lobbied with the outgoing army chief and the prime minister to be picked for the top slot. The premiers, for their part, have erroneously believed that if they pick a chief, he’d be loyal to them. All of them eventually discovered at their peril that every COAS is loyal only to the army, followed by personal ambition. 

The Faustian bargain between General Faiz and Imran Khan, in a milieu where the latter has sizeable support within the officers, however, really was unchartered waters for the brass. Despite Khan’s frontal assault on General Bajwa and the current ISI officials, they seemed helpless in containing him. Usually, an army chief is the boss till the last minute but General Bajwa clearly appeared to be a lame duck unable – or unwilling – to tackle the Faiz-Imran intrigue. He is said to have tried to nudge PM Sharif into either extending his tenure by a few months and holding fresh elections or appointing one of the generals close to him but not necessarily unacceptable to Imran Khan.

Shehbaz Sharif might have caved were it not for the PMLN supremo, the three-time former PM Nawaz Sharif. The elder Sharif, sitting calmly in cold London, spurned General Bajwa’s every overture, called his every bluff and didn’t even care to dignify Imran Khan’s constant threats with a response. He made it clear to both his brother and the outgoing army chief that he won’t compromise on the civilian government appointing the new COAS and that he wants the senior-most officer to be promoted.

Unlike in the past, when PMs tried to pick a weak or pliable chief, Nawaz Sharif went for neither. In private conversations, the elder statesman is very candid about his previous picks. He clearly says that he has handpicked five or so chiefs and each one undermined him and did what the army as an outfit wanted to do. Nawaz Sharif has no illusions about the next chief being any different from his previous picks. His present calculus was straightforward: let the senior-most officer, who also happens to be disliked by Imran Khan, take the job. It would instantly take the wind out of Imran Khan’s long march sails, get the brass off the coalition government’s back for the foreseeable future and bring a modicum of calm in the political turmoil.

This would allow his party-led coalition government to work on an economic recovery to provide relief to the public, and also allow the return of some old-fashioned patronage politics in preparation for the general elections next year. Nawaz Sharif also appears to have assigned his trusted confidant and the incumbent finance minister Ishaq Dar to buttress PM Sharif, who was seen by the brass as the weakest link. The elder Sharif’s instincts were right and the timing perfect. Imran Khan, who had built his protest narrative around the outgoing army chief ditching him and timed his protest march to impact the choice of the new one, found himself outmanoeuvred. With a woefully dismal turnout for his road show, many had already forecast that Khan’s long march is a dud. As we go to press, the march would have arrived in Rawalpindi-Islamabad and fizzled out. But what is next for the army and country?

Bajwa’s legacy

The cantankerous tug of war between the pro-Imran Khan adventurist brass and the traditionalist generals forced the army to recalibrate its immediate approach to wielding power. In his farewell speech, General Bajwa officially reiterated what has been insinuated before and was pronounced in a joint presser by the directors general ISI and Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) last month, i.e., the army has decided to become “apolitical” and pledges to stick to its constitutionally defined role. General Bajwa again claimed that the army has learned from its mistakes and wants to remain out of politics.

But his 10-minute speech, delivered to officers and families of fallen veterans, was full of contradictions and outright lies. While conceding the army’s political interventions, General Bajwa claimed that the politicians had wrongly called out the brass for manipulating the 2018 elections. He then went on to call the secession and independence of East Pakistan as Bangladesh a political failure. He extolled the Pakistan army’s loss on the battlefield in 1971, after running a dirty and genocidal war, as a valiant fight. General Bajwa claimed that the then-Indian Army Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal (FM) Sam Manekshaw praised the Pakistan army’s gallantry in that war. It was revisionism at its worst. That the Pakistan army had been ruling the country for over a decade leading up to the 1971 war, and during and after it, was conveniently airbrushed by General Bajwa. He claimed that the “army has started its catharsis [sic]”, and now the politicians should introspect.

General Bajwa was remorseless, disingenuous and his words sounded as hollow as the podium he pronounced them from. He did not have the gumption to clearly own his and the army’s blundering intrigues that undermined a functioning elected government in 2017, stole an election in 2018 to install an incompetent puppet, destroyed the economy and governance, and ultimately brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy and civil strife.

General Bajwa was always a petty man who occupied a big office. The so-called Bajwa Doctrine was nothing but a fancy term for a blatant power grab, which ended up boomeranging on the army itself. But General Bajwa’s family members became billionaires during his six years at the helm. That he hasn’t let out as much as a peep about the ace reporter Ahmed Noorani’s story about the fortune his family has amassed speaks volumes. And if there were any doubt, foreign minister Dar effectively confirmed the veracity of Noorani’s report by ordering an inquiry not into the authenticity of the numbers but how they were leaked!

In a functioning democracy, his family’s financial scruples and confession of unconstitutional interventions would’ve been enough for General Bajwa to be indicted. But he will walk off into the sunset unscathed. The army has always protected its former chiefs, including those who mounted coups d’état, and this time would be no exception – despite the residual rancour within the brass.

The newly-minted COAS, however, would be compelled to make a clean break from General Bajwa’s in-your-face interventions and direct dealings with businessmen, politicians and journalists. Pakistan may be a hard country to deal with but a fairly easy one to forecast. Almost always, what’s past is prologue. In his book The Military in Pakistan: Image and Reality, a Delhi-born former DG ISPR, Brigadier A.R. Siddiqui, prudently noted: 

“The frequent use of the military for internal security duties had first led to an expansion of its image and then to its progressive contraction or disfiguration. The popular belief in the inexhaustible resourcefulness of the military eroded through excessive use and overexposure, which made it all too familiar a sight and deprived it of much of its awe and majesty.”

The Pakistan army is nothing if not image-conscious. It has little regard for the ugly realities its constant meddling in the country’s political processes has produced. But it does not want to be seen as responsible for those realities and tries to repair its tarnished image without actually changing its interventionist reality. The Imran-Bajwa hybrid regime was the army’s project, not Imran Khan’s. And when the venture went bust, the army rightly got blamed for the disaster but wanted Imran Khan to fall on the sword.

General Bajwa will go down in history as arguably the most reviled and humiliated army chief, and that too without declaring martial law. The sloganeering against the man in his home province and the army’s demographic base, the Punjab, first for installing Imran Khan and then for not preventing his ouster, was unprecedented. In almost a throwback to General Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship when the army personnel were advised to avoid visiting public areas in uniform and even grow longer hair, the army’s image and popularity took a vicious blow during General Bajwa’s extended tenure. And just like the army made a conscious decision in 2007-2008 to avoid being seen as intruding into day-to-day political matters, it has chosen now to exercise restraint. 

General Asim Munir is likely to be the second coming of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who succeeded Musharraf, and for the most part, kept a low profile himself without actually conceding any significant control over the power levers. General Munir, like General Kayani, is being described as a soldier’s soldier, his own man, an austere person and a hardliner and expert on India. And incidentally, they would be the only two chiefs in the army’s history to have headed the ISI.

Unlike General Kayani, the new chief, however, will have to grapple with friction within the brass. But there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be able to iron it out, with the rank and file falling in line swiftly. Any incorrigibles would be quietly purged. But the bottom line remains that despite the outgoing COAS and the incumbent DG ISI’s pronouncements about the army becoming apolitical, no dramatic shift in the civil-military power imbalance is expected. While the civilian leadership has a window of opportunity to wrestle back some of the political space lost to the hybrid regime, the state of play remains fluid.

If Imran Khan is able to contain his impatience and outbursts, he may continue to be useful not only as a counterweight to Nawaz Sharif at the national level but also as someone who has kept the Pashtun nationalists in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province on the ropes for a decade. But should Imran Khan opt for continued confrontation, the army under the new chief will cut him down to size. Unfortunately, chances are slim to none that the Baloch nationalists and the newer variant of the Pashtun nationalism a la Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), would be treated any differently than before. In fact, a true litmus test of the army’s much-trumpeted change of heart would be to see the forcibly disappeared Baloch men recovered, and the illegally incarcerated PTM parliamentarian Ali Wazir released. But one shouldn’t hold one’s breath. 

Similarly, the fundamentals of the army’s India and the closely-linked Afghanistan paradigm won’t change with the new chief. These are the constants which aren’t altered whether there is a declared martial law, or the army is controlling the foreign and national security policies from behind the scenes. For example, the army’s Afghan Taliban project was first conceived during General Waheed Kakar’s era and came to initial fruition during General Jehangir Karamat’s tenure. Both generals were considered non-interventionist professionals, much like General Asim Munir.

In the end analysis, it does not matter whether the COAS is a hard-drinking womaniser like General Yahya Khan or a religious man General Zia-ul-Haq or General Asim Munir, who is said to have memorised the Quran, their conduct at the helm serves the institutional imperatives that the army has at that particular time to preserve and perpetuate its preeminence. In the foreseeable future, the Pakistan army seems to be heading towards reverting to a tutelary role after the abject failure of its hybrid regime experiment. It is not about to relinquish control over policy and power. For now, it seeks to repair its tarnished image without compromising on the fundamentals of the power equation. A change of guard in Rawalpindi heralds a mere restraint, not reset. 

Postscript: As expected, Imran Khan’s long march protest, which was supposed to topple the applecart in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, turned out to be a damp squib. Bereft of support from the prevailing sections of the junta, he has no great options left. And the purge within the army has started with General Faiz Hameed and others seeking early retirement.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. 

This article was originally published on The Wire.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.