Worried about continuing attacks from sections of the civilian elite, Pakistan’s
powerful army is engaged in shadow-boxing to retain its credibility and image as the
nation’s super-saviour, uninterested in seeking or wielding power.
Daily attacks from former Prime Minister Imran Khan forced the army chief, General
Qamar Jawed Bajwa, to issue on July 2 ‘directions’ to his commanders (presumably
the six corps commanders, but also other senior officers) to “stay away” from politics
and politicians and not respond to public criticism, even avoid interaction with the
Significantly, these ‘directions’ were followed up, within three day, by Director
General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (IS), Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum, to issue
Anjum’s orders, analysts say, are directed at his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed
who, as former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s trouble-shooter with politicians at home
and the Afghan Taliban in Kabul, got into crosshair between Khan and Bajwa. Khan’s
attempts to retain Hameed as the ISI head caused a rift between Khan and Bajwa. It
triggered the political processes leading to Khan’s ouster. Bajwa is silent on this, but
Khan, who denies this, keeps praising Hameed publicly.
Khan was widely perceived as the ‘proxy’ whom the army helped assume power after
the 2018 elections. He has turned a bitter critic after the army with which he claimed
to be “on the same page” for nearly three years, decided to go ‘neutral’. This, he has
alleged, helped the opposition to vote him out of the power in April.
Khan keeps attacking the army, using the expression ‘neutrals’ as a political pejorative,
for having become part of “an international conspiracy” that was orchestrated by the
United States to impose an ‘imported’ government on Pakistan.
Analysts say Khan has at one go antagonised two of the pillars of Pakistan’s power
game, the army and the USA. But they are unable to find the rationale behind this
relentless campaign that, in conventional political terms, would prevent Khan from
returning from power.
One reason is Khan’s larger-than-life posturing in public, in keeping with his nature.
The other is a perception that a section of the senior army brass favours him over the
two mainstream political parties – PPP and PML (Nawaz) – that are well-entrenched.
The officers supportive of Khan think that the army can handle Khan, the individual,
better than the two big families-run parties. Khan’s rough, self-glorifying stance
supports this thinking.At the end of the day, analysts say, the army chief would have to go by the opinion,
preferably unanimous, of the corps commanders and other key men in uniform, to
decide whether to allow Khan a second chance or discard him, for now at least, in
favour of another individual/ political combine.
Adding to the ‘indecision’ by the army brass is the lacklustre performance of the current
coalition government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. It is unable to improve the
economic conditions that it has inherited from Khan, resulting in political instability
and widespread social distress.
Khan has been demanding a snap poll, hoping to ride back to power on the back of the
current chaotic conditions, but he – for that matter, any other political combination –
would need the army’s nod to win. The military, as of now, appears unable to judge
whether a snap poll would help, or should it let conditions fester for another year.
Elections are due in July 2023.
The army’s task is made more difficult as Gen. Bajwa’s extended tenure is to end in
November, and he has announced that he would not accept another extension, if
offered. It involves the Prime Minister. It could be Sharif for now. A snap poll with
uncertain outcome, would leave things in the hands of the future prime minister. A snap
poll now could also mean Bajwa being “urged to accept” an extension by the
In a situation that is difficult for him and for the army he leads, Bajwa has been cautious
in what he says. This is where his ‘directions’ figure. Ideally, he would like to insulate
the army from criticism and leave it strong enough to play its role in the country’s
polity and governance.
Bajwa’s recent foreign visits have been interpreted as “farewell calls” to the US
leadership and to the Saudi royalty, among others. The Saudi Crown Prince bestowed
the highest award on him. Bajwa also met the UAE royalty.
While in Dubai, he called on former military ruler, retired general Pervez Musharraf,
ailing and in exile for long. There is no longer talk of Musharraf wanting to return
home to spend his “last days” after no public stand of the Sharif regime’s and sections
of it demanding that Musharraf be considered a fugitive and tried for treason. This is
the last thing Bajwa or anyone in the Pakistan Army would want