Keeping Establishment Out Of Politics
The main challenge for new army chief will be to make it clear that the his institution is unbiased and will not take sides in political battles, writes Hamid Hussain.
From day one, I strongly opposed the political engineering project of establishment that started a while ago. No one is arguing with the challenges faced by Pakistan. It is the type of solutions offered that are part of the debate. The whole project was conceptualised as staff college exercise and executed in a very clumsy way. Change of command in 2016 inserted new anomalies. My argument was that every step will require additional intervention not envisioned at first stage.
Increasing dependence on army’s project directors on the ground (senior intelligence officers) will affect the institution in a negative way. With this in mind, I was not in favor of elevation of Faiz Hamid to third star rank. He is a fine officer and eligible for promotion. However, in his previous assignment, he was involved in many controversies.
General Bajwa doubled down and not only elevated him but brought him as the DG ISI. He is now like an unexploded mine left on the road traversed by GHQ.
More crucially, in the game of perception, army brass will be blamed for even those actions not generated at GHQ. There is tendency of ‘Pakistan Studies Brigade’ to go way beyond the brief. They may have not got a direct call from ISPR but those on the receiving end of the vilifying campaign including journalists, lawyers, judges, PTM, opposition groups etc. are convinced that this campaign is directed by GHQ.
The result is gradual build-up of steam against army brass. I was of the view that this will ultimately suck army on many unnecessary fronts. Army brass came up with a hybrid of Bangladesh and Egyptian models. However, there is a clear and present danger of Pakistan entering a dead end street a la Sudan.
2019 looks more like 2007. General Pervez Musharraf had come under criticism from different quarters of society and in the process army’s reputation was sullied. Change of command provided an exit.
General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani slowly consolidated his command by sidelining old guard and then convincing all players that army has turned a page. The possible exit for army is change of command in November 2019.
However, personal interests of three key players; Prime Minister Imran Khan, Army Chief General Bajwa and DG ISI Faiz Hamid now converge where extension of General Bajwa is being seriously considered. 1-3 year extension will serve all three parties. Bajwa to enjoy few more years of private jet and being the master gamekeeper at the national park.
Imran Khan will be seriously thinking about giving him an extension to make sure that an unknown factor does not come into equation. Imran is faced with enormous challenges. However, he has not been able to put his house in order.
Rising economic woes and diverse opposition groups coming closer can cause many headaches. Having army brass in his corner is important to weather any storm. He would prefer to continue with known entity than venture into unchartered territory. In case of three years extension, Faiz will be among top contenders in 2022. After 18-24 months as DGISI, Bajwa can appoint him Corps Commander to make him eligible for the top slot.
I’m not in favor of any extension but especially in case of Bajwa, negative fallout for army is manifold. Army is seen no more as a neutral body and extreme polarization of Pakistani polity is now directly affecting army as institution.
Army brass is very sensitive to public opinion and no policy is carved in stone. Ground realities dictate any given policy. Common man on the street is already talking about army’s role in bringing the current set up. Army brass is getting some of the blame for poor economic conditions, censorship of media, influence on judiciary etc. as they are viewed as king makers.
Leadership of PML-N and PPP is facing the music and their frustration is understandable. However, criticism is coming from many segments of the society including lawyers, journalists, ethnic groups etc.
If things get worse and street gets agitated, army will need a firewall to protect its own reputation. This will be very difficult for current Chief and DG ISI. A new Chief even if he was in agreement with current institutional policy will have his own thoughts and more importantly bring his own team.
This shuffle at the top can be a signal to all opposition that army has changed course and allows a detour for army to deflect criticism.
It is unfortunate turn of events. A genuine third political force under Imran Khan supported by middle class finally emerged on its own merits. It had support in all four provinces. This could have finally put the stamp of expiration date on politics of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari in due course.
Thanks to pretty amateur attempts by GHQ and Imran Khan opting for a short cut when he didn’t need, PTI’s own brand is damaged. Hordes of turncoats crashing into PTI tent and half of General Mussharraf’s cabinet running new government is just very bad optics for promise of a new era.
Worse, conditions are providing fertile environment for resurrection of old guard. In a normal course, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari would be marching towards oblivion of history but thanks to their supposed opponents they are still in the game. Army failed to calculate the enormous damage which uncertainty can do to the economy.
A step in right direction will be for new army chief to take a step back. Let courts decide about the charge of guilt and let politicians fight their battles in parliament. Army can help build the capacities of civilian agencies in areas of security and give input in relevant areas of national security.
The main challenge for new army chief will not be external but to move his own institution in neutral lane and to convey the message that army has no favorites and will not take sides in political battles.This will be indeed a tall order. On positive side, army has highest public approval compared to any other institution. Public is always ready to forgive its past mistakes even sins for they see army as guarantor of their freedom.