The Imran Khan vitriol has burnt deep into the Pakistan Army leadership going by the recent spate of public statements in quick succession, mixed with anger, anguish and, of course, injured innocence. The army has rarely spoken in such a `restrained` manner in Pakistan.
The latest official statement focussed on Peshawar Corps Commander and former ISI chief, Lt. General Faiz Hamid. Hamid has been a key figure in the ongoing political upheaval. He is said to have masterminded the rise of Imran Khan as the Prime Minister, albeit with the concurrence of his chief, General Qamar Bajwa. Both fell out over support to Imran Khan but not serious enough because Hamid was posted to the prestigious Corp Command Peshawar which has been at the forefront of `war against terrorism` since 2001. Bajwa, perhaps, wanted Hamid to be away from Aabpara, Islamabad over his liaison with a journalist which was exposed in a public meeting by well known journalist, Hamid Mir. The episode could have sullied Hamid’s chance of being the Chief of Army Staff. He remains one of the contenders.
So when a recent spurt of attack was launched against the former ISI chief, the army had to respond strongly. The attack was instigated by Imran Khan’s podcast where he termed Hamid as his `eyes and ears`, not wrong in spirit as the ISI chiefs are supposed to handhold premiers they had promoted. But Imran Khan’s statement triggered a volley of spiteful comments from his opponents. Former President Asif Ali Zardari made a disparaging remark about Faiz Hamid not being in the line for the chief. PMLN Vice President,Maryam Nawaz said the army chief should be a person who had a “flawless reputation”, free from any criticism or doubts. Then Defence Minister Khawaja Asif spoke about the possibility of holding the elections before the new chief takes over.
For the Army, especially its beleaguered chief General Qamar Bajwa, these statements presented four serious issues. One, despite strong words in public against mudslinging, there has been no respite; in fact it has become even more scurrilous and damaging for the army. This is a failure of perception–the army has failed to understand public opinion.
Two, the attack on the ISI chief targeted the core element of Pakistan Army’s involvement in civilian affairs, and its main pillar of strength. The attack on Faiz Hamid was a direct assault on the ISI and this could not be tolerated.
Third is the sudden political sling shots on the ISI, be it Zardari or Maryam Nawaz. This is a serious cause of worry among the Generals. Since the Musharraf days, the ISI has been the instrument of the army to whittle down the two dynastic political parties, PPP and PMLN, to considerable extent. The emergence of a solitary figure like Imran Khan was part of this strategy to create a political space which remains subservient to the army. The same set of political parties have suddenly emerged on the scene, upsetting the army’s long plans, and targeting the ISI and its leadership.
Fourth is how the on-going controversy has already sullied the selection of the next chief. It is more than likely that the selection would invite even greater controversy in the days ahead, a situation which the army would like to avoid getting into.
The army’s failure in assessing public mood, swiftly changing political challenges and divisions within the leadership has been immense. The more the army speaks in defence, the more it reveals how divided and disoriented the leadership has become.