Only a few brave politicians and intellectuals objected to the overwhelming vote by Pakistan’s parliament to extend the tenure of Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa for another three years. Little debate or discussion preceded the vote, as if parliament was rubber-stamping a decision rather than making one.
General Qamar Bajwa now has a free hand to run Pakistan, with a minimal civilian façade, backed by apparent parliamentary consensus and little opposition.
General Bajwa’s confidantes say he will concentrate on enacting reforms that Pakistan’s divided elite has failed to enact. He would like to use his position to create circumstances to end future military interventions.
Given Pakistan’s history, there remains a lot of scepticism. But the army’s de facto primacy in Pakistan has long been recognised and one wonders what difference, if any, would be made by providing it de jure sanction through nearly unanimous legislation.
For the few supporters of civilian supremacy in Pakistan’s public square, the conduct of mainstream opposition parties – the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) headed by former president Asif Zardari – was disappointing.
Both parties have spoken in the past against the Pakistani military’s political role. But they conceded consolidation of power by the current military chief, ostensibly in return for having criminal proceedings that had kept their leaders in prison. Some politicians argued rather incredulously that by bringing the matter to parliament, the Pakistani military was conceding civilian supremacy.
A total of 315 legislators from various political parties in both houses of parliament effectively voted in favour of General Bajwa’s extension. This marks the end of the assumption that the military is content with ‘being on one page’ with the weak and ineffective prime minister, Imran Khan, and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The two major parties, PML-N and PPP, are expecting fresh elections and would probably be happy to be General Bajwa’s new political partners.
Failure of political class
The military has been the anchor for the ship of state in Pakistan since 1951. But after the collapse of the military regime headed by General Pervez Musharraf in 2008, people thought the generals had understood that soldiers alone cannot ensure a country’s progress. Instead of assuming power directly, they seemed willing to share responsibility with the elected politicians in running Pakistan.
Relations between Pakistan’s generals and politicians have never been smooth under dyarchy, or dual control. There was always deference to the military’s concerns in foreign policy and matters pertaining to national security. But the politicians’ performance was far from exemplary even in their own domain.
The politicians who pushed for greater control over policy-making in the last decade now seem to have accepted that they cannot have that control. Mainstream politics in Pakistan has become an arrangement for distribution of patronage, in which opposition to the military is voiced primarily when a leader or a political party faces allegations of corruption and bad governance.
Had Pakistan’s politicians been able to keep their hands relatively clean and abided by constitutional norms and democratic traditions, the gradual democratisation of Pakistan might have been easier.
Pakistan’s generals are rightly blamed for their part in the country’s difficulties. But the political class, too, has obstructed Pakistan’s transition along the lines of Indonesia or Chile, where sustained civilian rule has successfully followed military dictatorship.
Military’s image makeover
When General Qamar Bajwa became army chief in November 2016, he apparently decided that Pakistan could not afford to be pulled in different directions by the military and the civilians. There is considerable potential in stable civil-military relations and Gen Bajwa expressed a desire to make Pakistan a ‘normal country.’
Unlike General Raheel Sharif, Bajwa did not want a personality cult for himself, nor did he focus solely on getting an extension in his three-year tenure, as General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had preferred. After getting the three-year extension in tenure, Bajwa’s interest is now said to be in correcting the country’s course from General Headquarters (GHQ) through parliament and civilian institutions.
As is often the case with well laid out plans of absolute control, Pakistan’s current dispensation has had its share of setbacks. The Supreme Court’s outgoing Chief Justice, Asif Saeed Khosa, waited until the last few weeks of his tenure to deliver a series of judgments that challenged Bajwa’s plans. The extension of Bajwa’s tenure as army chief by three years was determined by the Court as not possible under existing laws.
The Supreme Court allowed a six-month extension to enable a legal fix, which has come in the form of the latest amendment in the Pakistan Army Act. Consensus among disparate parties in parliament to enable Bajwa’s extension was worked out to help recover the military’s image. That image had been somewhat dented by the Supreme Court’s challenge to Bajwa’s extension as well as another court sentencing former army chief General Musharraf to death for treason over his suspension of the Constitution in 2007.
Gen Bajwa vs Gen Ayub Khan
Having secured his extension with parliament’s blessing, General Bajwa would now like to focus on straightening out Pakistan’s economy, suppressing Jihadi terrorism, working out a peace deal in Afghanistan, finding a balance in ties with China and the US as well as between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and normalising relations with India without giving up on Pakistan’s claims on Kashmir.
That daunting agenda ahead might need more than a general’s sincerity and patriotism. Bajwa stands now at a point similar to where General Ayub Khan stood soon after taking over the reins of power in October 1958. Hardly anyone opposed Ayub Khan’s authority in his first few months as Pakistan’s absolute ruler.
As he progressed towards becoming Field Marshal, he found that his solutions to some problems generated new issues. Some of his decisions turned allies into critics and critics into virulent opponents.
Ayub Khan made the mistake of assuming that diverse opinions and policy prescriptions were damaging for Pakistan; that politicians and independent-thinking civilians were untrustworthy and lacking in national spirit; and that learning from the past meant determining whom to blame rather than figuring out what those mistakes might have been.
Can General Bajwa move past those assumptions?
Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His books include ‘Pakistan Between Mosque and Military,’ ‘India v Pakistan: Why Can’t we be Friends’ and ‘Reimagining Pakistan’. Views are personal.