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Will Gen Bajwa’s Extension Ensure Imran Khan’s Survival In Office?

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Umer Farooq analyses the likelihood of Prime Minister Imran Khan meeting the same fate of becoming irrelevant after exercising his authority to appoint the army chief. 

In the post-Musharraf period there is little doubt about the fact that the Prime Minister of Pakistan – who under the constitutional provisions has the discretionary powers to appoint Chief of the Army Staff – increasingly starts becoming irrelevant the moment he picks up his man for appointment as head of a powerful army.

The army chief jealously guards army’s interests and affairs against any civilian intrusions. After Pakistan’s participation in the war against terror, the army chief is the sole authority on internal security matters, which means he has the power to decide when, where and how much force to apply against militants and terror groups.

And last but not the least, the unending squabbles between country’s political elite ensure that the COAS makes occasional forays into the political arena as well.

But this is not the only reason why Prime Minister becomes irrelevant in the power game after he appoints the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). There are other reasons for that: including the hard examples of three occasions when the civilian prime ministers appointed army chiefs in the post-Musharraf period and the same chiefs turned against their appointing authority.

Consider this: General Kiyani was given a three years extension by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government in 2010 and within two years he was standing before the Supreme Court accusing his appointing authority of conspiring with the Americans to undermine the institution. But he was a unique type of plaintiff who had the manipulating power to corner an incumbent federal government.

PPP government ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani who was accused to be the main conspirator in Memogate scandal, couldn’t find any secure place for himself in the country while PPP was still in power. He had to flee the country.

Former Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif twice exercised the discretionary powers to appoint a chief of the army staff during his tenure in office during the post-Musharraf period. Both times Nawaz Sharif was sidelined in the policy making processes – on first occasion he was asked to retreat from his desire to normalise relations with India; and on the second occasion he not only forced out of prime minister’s office but found himself behind bars.

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Will Prime Minister Imran Khan meet the same fate of becoming irrelevant after exercising his authority to appoint army chief?

There are clear political reasons that Imran Khan might not face such a fate. But politically savvy personalities in his camp with good understanding of political history of the country are apprehensive about such a situation repeating itself in the power corridors once again.

Hence people like Sheikh Rashid and Shah Mehmood Qureshi in their comments on army chief’s extension overly emphasised the role of Prime Minister Khan in giving extension to General Bajwa.

Those in the government’s camp are also satisfied from another perspective as they think that the government and the army chief, General Bajwa are in the same boat. Perhaps this has happened few times before in country’s history that the political groups, which are doing opposition of incumbent government are more opposed to army chief, “Here we have a situation where political groups like PML-N and Pashtun Tahuffuz Movement (PTM) are doing opposition of both the army and government at the same time” says a political commentator on the condition of anonymity.

This unique political situation will make it almost impossible for the army to change the political allies during the ongoing political tussle. Hence Imran Khan government could possibly bank on the continued support of Army chief in the days ahead. 

“Controlling the army institutions through individuals is a dream which will be difficult to materialise”, said a security expert. The endless prattle of some of the government functionaries to justify the decision of extension on the basis of unusually regional security environment is a bit too clumsy.

Pakistan’s security establishment, which Army Chief heads, is currently out of options to influence the events in Indian Held Kashmir. They have some leverage to influence the outcome of end game in Afghanistan. But if the Taliban do not agree to a viable deal, the opportunity of getting closer again to Washington’s security establishment could be endangered.

Pakistan army and its chief, however, are usually in a position to control and influence domestic political events in the country. This seems to be the prime fear of any incumbent government while deciding about the appointment or extension of services of army chief.

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In the post-Musharraf period every time a new army chief was appointed the event was followed by a massive campaign to build the personality and stature of the General heading the army. There is a juggernaut—comprising of military’s media wing, intelligence agencies and a segment of the media—which come into play to build the stature of the new army chief. This happened twice when new COAS was appointed in post Musharraf period.

Army Chief’s personality is built around three main points: a) He is the only strong man who is solely responsible for creating secure environment of Pakistanis after a very difficult time of suicide bombings and terror attacks.

This is reinforced by the role army is playing in combating terrorism and militancy; b) he is the most effective check on the excesses of civil government. One pro army journalist went to the extent of suggesting that army chief is at the center of checks and balances in the political system; c) The world leaders listen to him, this point is reinforced by Army chief’s role as a diplomat-in-arms for the government and his meeting with foreign heads of the state.

Perhaps Imran Khan wanted to save himself and his government from the destabilising effects of another army leader emerging on the national horizon and therefore decided to retain the incumbent, one whose larger the life personality is an established fact in country’s public life.

Clearly the government functionaries are projecting the decision as Prime Minister Imran Khan’s way of signaling to the world that civil and military leaders are on the same page in Pakistan. This communications campaign has its own pitfalls.

It will make clear to the Pakistani populace that Bajwa and Imran are the two sides of the same coin, and in the process creating doubts in the minds of public about army chief’s role as an effective check on civil government.

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