On Monday, when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan gave the country’s Army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, an extension, the press reports did not convey the full story. The facts were not necessarily misreported but they were misleadingly interpreted, and even incorrectly assessed. The true picture is very revealing of the Prime Minister’s own position and how his views have changed.
To start with, this wasn’t a simple extension. That would suggest his term of office has been increased by a limited period. In fact, Gen. Bajwa was given a full three-year second tenure. The official notification from the Prime Minister’s office makes this clear: “Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa is appointed Chief of Army Staff for another term of three years from the date of completion of current tenure”.
Yet in 2010, when one of Gen. Bajwa’s predecessors, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was given a similar “extension”, Imran Khan strongly and publicly criticised the decision. This is what he said to Pakistan’s Express News Channel: “No general or judge should get an extension because it will weaken the respective organisation … even during the time of the First and Second World Wars, nobody was given any extension. When you are breaking the law, you destroy institutions … when you change the laws for an individual, it weakens the entire institution”.
These were arguments based on sound democratic and governance principles. They were hard to disagree with. So how does the justification for giving Gen. Bajwa a second tenure compare with these arguments? Monday’s statement from Mr Khan’s office says: “The decision has been taken in view of the regional security environment”, which, presumably, means the deteriorating India-Pakistan situation and the disturbed and fragile environment in Afghanistan.
Yet in November 2016, when Gen. Bajwa took over, the first cross-border surgical strikes by India had just happened, creating uncertainty and concern on the border, while Nawaz Sharif’s position as Prime Minister was weakening by the day. In fact, it was widely believed that his future depended on the Army chief’s goodwill. But Mr Sharif did not hesitate to appoint a new chief. Indeed, in 1998, he even dismissed one (Gen. Jehangir Karamat) for speaking out of turn. Mr Khan has acted very differently. So, in his case, isn’t it tempting to conclude expediency has trumped principle?
This could be irresistible when you recall the role that Gen. Bajwa played in securing the prime ministership for Mr Khan and the way he has, thereafter, been rewarded.
In 2018 Imran Khan’s electoral victory was substantially shaped by the Army. First were the efforts to hobble his principal rival Nawaz Sharif’s party, after Mr Sharif himself had been politically debarred. Over 100 of its candidates were “encouraged” to switch loyalties or return their tickets. The BBC reported that nearly 17,000 of Mr Sharif’s party members were charged with criminal cases for breaking unspecified election rules. Then the Army facilitated permission for extremist organisations to contest the polls under new aliases. This was designed to split Mr Sharif’s vote in his Punjab heartland.
Finally, on election day, the Army’s presence was overwhelming. Over 370,000 troops were deployed both inside and outside polling stations. They were granted magistrate powers to hold on-the-spot trials of anyone accused of breaking laws and, thereafter, sentence them. It was a clear message to the Pakistani people to vote as the Army would prefer.
The country’s Human Rights Commission chairman, Mehdi Hasan, called it a “blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempt to manipulate the outcome of the elections”.
After becoming Prime Minister, Mr Khan knew it was time to return the favour. He first called Gen. Bajwa “the most pro-democratic man we have ever seen”. In June, he appointed the general to Pakistan’s National Development Council, a body designed to guide the country’s economic revival, where an Army chief, one would assume, has no role to play. Last month the general accompanied Mr Khan to Washington for critical talks with US President Donald Trump. It would seem the final payback happened on Monday.
How different all of this is to the image Mr Khan presented of himself in the interview he gave me in November 2011 for India’s CNN-IBN channel. At the time Gen. Kayani was Pakistan’s Army chief and Mr Khan was out to prove that if he ever became PM, he would be the boss.
Q: If Imran Khan becomes Prime Minister, will you accept a subordinate status or will you have the courage and strength to challenge Gen. Kayani and the corps commanders and insist on civilian supremacy?
A: If I am to implement my agenda, which means I take responsibility for everything that’s happening in Pakistan, it also means that the Army is under me. It means the ISI can do nothing unless it reports to me. It means that the Army budget is audited by a civilian setup.
Q: In a nutshell, what you’re saying is if Imran Khan becomes Prime Minister he will be Gen. Kayani’s boss? He will be any and every Army chief’s boss?
A: One hundred per cent. I have never ever, ever been controlled by anyone. If people give me a mandate to be Prime Minister, I cannot be someone’s puppet.
Those were strong words, but eight years ago there was no credible prospect of Mr Khan becoming Prime Minister. Today he’s been in the job for 13 months. I guess you could say he’s learnt the importance of being flexible. Oscar Wilde would have approved.