It is a truth that the Pakistan Army controls Pakistan. It is also true that the Army decides who it wants to be its next Chief. Constitutionally, the Prime Minister of Pakistan selects the new Army Chief, but the reality is that the military calls the shots. Politically, the Army wants to be seen as ‘neutral’, when in fact, it is the guiding hand behind all activities relating to the government. Having remained ‘neutral’ in ouster of their candidate as Prime Minister, the Army dumped Imran Khan and chose Shahbaz Sharif as a stop gap arrangement in the run up to the general elections in Pakistan, due to be held in 2023. The ‘neutral’ Generals are back to their old game. Early election is in the mind of Army so that a new Army Chief can be selected by a new pliant government. Elections are scheduled to be held in October 2023, but the mood in Pakistan appears to be to have them preponed to enable the Army and political parties to stabilise their equations. In any case, Shahbaz Sharif is very much an establishment man and is unlikely to go out of his way and interfere in the process, assuming he remains in office till the next election.
Reports indicate that the Army has been in touch with prominent politicians and others to explore the possibility of forming a caretaker government. Reports also indicate that former Finance Ministers, Dr Hafiz Sheikh and Shaukat Tarin along with former State Bank of Pakistan Governor Raja Baqir were called to GHQ, Rawalpindi for consultations on the IMF deliberations as well as Pakistan’s economic situation. These discussions are ongoing and should not come as a surprise, as the Army is very much concerned about the economic situation. Discussions in this regard are ongoing in Qatar between Pakistan and the IMF. The Army obviously realises the dire straits Pakistan is in and is keen on the IMF bailout to help them tide over the crisis. The latest meeting at GHQ saw participants agreeing that politics should be kept away from economic matters. Two former diplomats were also reportedly called for the meeting at GHQ.
There is good reason for the Army to be worried, because without money their own survival is at stake. That is why they have warned Imran Khan and his party to step back on attacking the Army. The Shireen Mazari incident is part of this process of intimidation. Further, pro-Imran journalists have been charged with sedition. The media authority has issued a strict warning against casting slur on Generals and judges. Imran Khan’s long march to Islamabad is a political road show with little traction and is driven more by electoral politics than anything else. Just how influential the Army remains in Pakistan was evident when Major General Babar Iftikhar, Director General, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) while addressing a media briefing (14 April 2022), said that Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa and Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum, DG ISI were approached by the Prime Minister’s Office when the ‘deadlock’ was on.
Iftikhar also apparently stated that options to defuse the crisis were not given by the Army but emerged in the meeting that Gen. Bajwa and Lt. Gen. Anjum attended in Khan’s office. These options were that the no-confidence motion proceeded as it is, Khan resigned or that the Opposition withdrew the motion and Khan dissolving the Assemblies took the country to elections. The last was Khan’s preferred option and was conveyed by Bajwa and Anjum to the Opposition leaders who refused to withdraw the no-confidence motion.
The Shahbaz Sharif government has its own challenges to deal with. This is reflected most critically in the IMF bailout. Accepting a bailout would necessarily mean ending of fuel subsidy, a highly unpopular decision which would bury the electoral chances of the party or parties. There is talk that the Shahbaz Sharif government would rather quit than end fuel subsidies. There is no unity in the PML-N and its allies in the party, hence there are different voices being heard. If the government is to survive, it needs to take some hard decisions, or else the economy will simply fall. The potential simultaneous scenarios that stare Pakistan in the face, include a repeat of the Sri Lankan economic downturn and consequently, street protests becoming rampant.
The present state of play in Pakistan will be determined by the fate of the current Army Chief General Bajwa. Comments by the incumbent Defence Minister Khwaja Asif that the name of Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, former DG ISI could be considered for the top post in the Army, led to a slew of political remarks. Maryam Nawaz, Vice President of the PML-N party recently said that the person selected to be the Army Chief should have a “flawless reputation”, hinting that Bajwa’s replacement should not be an Imran Khan favourite. The PML-N leader has been critical of Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who served as the ISI chief from June 2019 to October 2021 and is currently the Peshawar Corps Commander.
Last year, Imran Khan had engaged in a protracted battle against Army chief General Qamar Bajwa, refusing to sign on to the replacement of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General, Faiz Hameed, with Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum. Faiz Hameed was instrumental in securing Khan’s election in 2018. Prime Minister Khan was told, among others by his fourth wife Bushra Khan, that if Faiz was transferred, Imran would lose his job. A similar clash had occurred earlier between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Army Chief General Asif Nawaz over the appointment of Lt. Gen. Javed Nasir, a member of the Tablighi Jamaat order, as DG, ISI, without consulting the Army chief.
The military’s rule by other means in Pakistan has become an alternative definition for rule by proxy. Even assuming General Bajwa demits office in November 2022, the fundamental rules will not change. That is the reason why it is necessary to keep a watch on what the Army is doing now. As of now, it remains on the side lines, waiting to ensure that the right candidate comes in as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, it is confident that PM Shahbaz Sharif will act on its directions. The worry of course, remains the state of the economy. Without that foundation, no amount of politicking will help the Army stick to its position as the supreme power in Pakistan.