Pakistan’s ‘chief’ challenge
Within this week, Pakistan will have crossed a critical bridge and its chief challenge will have been overcome. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif will have selected a new army chief from among four or five names of the senior-most and eligible generals sent to him by the outgoing head, General Qamar Bajwa. Seniority in years of service, rigorous training in the army’s elite training institutions and holding of key positions including commander of a corps, together make for eligibility of the army chief.
The unusual significance of this appointment is linked to the role that historically Pakistan's army’s chief has played in Pakistan's domestic politics, including directly ruling Pakistan in times of martial law. Externally too, in world capitals there is a curiosity about who will occupy the post of Pakistan's new army chief. Also, as the sixth largest army, the largest in the Muslim world and currently ranked 9 out of 142 countries for Global Fire Power, Pakistan's army is very relevant in the Asian geostrategic context.
Although the new chief is set to enter this powerful slot on November 29, the path to his appointment has been an exceptionally turbulent one. Overall this has been an unusual time for Pakistan’s power scene. Beyond the criss-crossing of political, contestation and power battles, a new completely unprecedented scenario has emerged on the horizon. At a time when matters like financial liquidity, food shortages, post-flood rehabilitation and an unprecedented inflation and energy crisis all require focused attention and action from policymakers, the army chief question has hijacked the attention of power players.
The matter is not a new one, yet it’s been a somewhat unique matter all these years, given the nature of power play in Pakistan. After all, credible and transparent elections have not been the only determinant of who governs Pakistan and indeed how it is governed.
In 75 years, the military’s top command’s direct and indirect role in Pakistan’s politics has spread over more than 35 years. Hence, the significance of the army chief’s position has always been there. Yet this time around, as the current army chief General Bajwa’s second second term draws to a close, the questions, with observations and accusations rolled in, around the selection and eligibility of the next likely choice, have been unusual.
This time around, as the current army chief General Bajwa’s second second term draws to a close, the questions, with observations and accusations rolled in, around the selection and eligibility of the next likely choice, have been unusual.
Of the many factors these questions and accusations raise, six are noteworthy.
One, endless debate and discussion has taken place on the political orientation of the five senior-most generals. While such questions have always come up, it’s never been with this level of speculation and accusation. Two, PTI chairman Imran Khan argued for the political opposition’s ‘rightful’ and legitimate role in the selection of the next army chief- clearly an unconstitutional claim. Three, in his criticism of the current government, Khan has repeatedly claimed that the PM would select a general who would not be loyal to Pakistan but to the PM and that this appointed chief would protect the PM against all accountability. Four, in complete contravention of the Constitution and a general’s oath to remain apolitical, Khan’s statements accept the extra-constitutional role of generals in the area of accountability. Five, that the PM could use the army chief to ban the opposition from politics. And finally, that the PM’s consultation with his party colleagues is unacceptable.
These questions and observations have emerged against the backdrop of acute political polarization within Pakistan. The beginning of the current phase of political polarization began in 2017 and peaked post-April 2022. In 2017, PM Nawaz Sharif was removed in the Panama Case and now in April, PM Imran Khan was removed through a vote of no confidence. These two were declared suspect by the parties which were removed. The common factor in the criticism by all parties was the alleged role of non-political forces, read the establishment, in their respective removals.
However, the Imran Khan-led party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf has played a lead role in publicly raising unprecedented questions regarding the new incumbent’s selections and the intent of the selector. Khan’s recent political onslaught against Pakistan's current political situation and specifically against the incumbent government has principally targeted two A’s. One, the American government which he insisted engineered the vote of no-confidence against him and two, the army, its top command specifically. He accused General Bajwa for being “neutral” instead of siding with him to help him remain Prime Minister.
Interestingly, the PTI chairman’s love-hate relationship with Pakistan's outgoing army chief has been astonishing. On becoming Prime Minister, he eulogized the army chief and declared him the most democratic general. However, after being voted out, Khan was very critical of the army chief. In recent weeks, the former PM has vacillated between being the only politician calling for General Bajwa’s term extension and also accusing him of facilitating his removal.
In recent days, Khan seems to have pulled back from his perplexing display of rash and self-damaging political attitude on the selection of Pakistan's new army chief.
Meanwhile, soon the new army chief will take over the reins of the institution, hopefully guiding it away from the choppy waters it has sailed through in the last few years.
— Nasim Zehra is an author, analyst and national security expert.