The moment Pakistan’s Supreme Court took cognisance of the procedural lapses in the extension order for Gen. Qamar Bajwa’s continuation as Army Chief, it was obvious that a crisis was in the making. Now granting him a six-month reprieve to him and to Imran Khan’s government, with the caveat that proper legislation must be passed in this period on the tenure of service chiefs, has not resolved the issue. In fact, the grounds for more turbulence within Pakistan’s polity and military have been laid. Work on a new law has reportedly already begun, but there are competing forces at play which may not make the transition through the next six months easy.
First is the attempted perpetuation of status quo. Prime Minister Imran Khan has a comfort level with Gen. Bajwa, and after all without his largesse the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) would perhaps never have seen the light of day as far as political power is concerned. Whether its writ is supported by others in the Pakistan Army is not clear. What was being assumed as a well-knit, professional higher leadership promoting Pakistan’s interests has actually proven to be a self-serving set of senior officers. Gen. Bajwa would have done himself and Imran Khan some good if he recalled the events of 1969, that led to the ouster of former President Ayub Khan. It was none other than Yahya Khan, the man bolstered by Ayub, who ultimately forced him to abdicate. In the face of potential power coming their way, the Pakistan Army’s generals have displayed little loyalty, best exemplified by the reported spat at the corps commanders, where the chief was apparently hounded. Why was this so? Gen. Bajwa is of the 1980 batch and followed Gen. Raheel Sharif (1976 batch) as chief, who in turn followed Gen. Ashfaq Kayani (1970 batch). Gen. Kayani also got a three-year extension and upset the chances of the 1973-75 batches to throw up a chief from among them. Gen. Sharif went without an extension, allowing the 1980 batch to throw up Gen. Bajwa. Now if Gen. Bajwa’s tenure is extended by three years, the next batch to have a chief would be 1986 or beyond, effectively ruling out the 1983-85 batches, which have about 15-16 lieutenant-generals in contention. It is from among these that seven lieutenant-generals are reported to have joined hands with Chief Justice Asif Khosa to set up the three tense days in which the Supreme Court took suo moto cognisance of a withdrawn petition against Gen. Bajwa’s extension. The three-judge bench, besides pointing to glitches in the government’s procedural aspects, also made observations about the nature of the situation which the government said dictated the need for an extension of not one or two but three full years, equal to the original tenure. The latter is what probably upset the corps commanders no end.
What is likely to be the outcome? Sheikh Rashid, the maverick railway minister, has publicly declared that Gen. Bajwa will get his full three years as originally sought by the government. Mr Rashid is an astute politician. He knows that both the Pakistan Army and the government can ill afford to allow the judiciary to take such a stand and have it implemented; it will set a wrong precedent and further embolden the judiciary into creating a 2007-type situation in which a major tussle took place between Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and Gen. Parvez Musharraf, then Pakistan’s President. The court order asked the Imran Khan government to guarantee that a constitutional amendment would be finalised and approved in Parliament in the next six months, adding important points including specification of the tenure of appointment and extension of the Army Chief, retirement of a four-star general and clarity over the pension and privileges an Army hief and a four-star general would get. The court order clearly said: “Gen. Bajwa as COAS shall be subject to the said legislation and shall continue for a period of six months from November 28, whereafter the new legislation shall determine his tenure and other terms and conditions of service”. The Supreme Court would of course be aware that the legislature can approve rules by which the Army Chief could be given extensions upto or more than three years. Mr Rashid’s claim was that the PML(N)’s support has already been secured. The possibility of political lobbying by senior generals and a split wide open at the highest levels of the Pakistan Army may not be ruled out. The intent will be to keep the legislative power of extension for service chiefs to a maximum of six months. While Gen. Bajwa himself may not have wished to have a long extension, as has been reported, it is the survival of the Imran Khan government which is at stake. With Maulana Fazlur Rehman having laid the foundations of destabilisation of the Imran Khan government, and the PML(N) and PPP also having agreed to give support to the cleric, Imran Khan’s position is weak and entirely depends on the Army. However, with the political environment so vitiated, and the Army itself divided, Pakistan could be heading for a period of suspension of the legislature and direct rule by the Army. That again would have been the easiest option if things were all right on the economic and international front and Pakistan was not under intense pressure from the IMF and a host of other lenders.
It is not going to be an easy six months in Pakistan unless the government decides to act quickly and complete the formalities in an earlier timeframe. The proverbial pound of flesh will be extracted by the Opposition and that perhaps may end in partial marginalisation of Gen. Bajwa’s powers. With only limited support from the senior ranks and rampant mistrust, his weakening position would also affect the fortunes of the Imran Khan’s government. The Opposition might be salivating at the thought of fresh elections, but given the state of the economy and likely less than three per cent GDP growth, exercises like elections would be considered a luxury.
Internal turbulence and subterfuge within Pakistan does not necessarily lead to instability at the borders, but India will need to be doubly careful as many of the actions would be unpredictable and in fact verge on being irrational. It could also throw Pakistani politics to the wolves; the irrational radicalised elements temporarily ruling the roost once again on the streets.
The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.