Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa seem to have locked horns over the issue of the transfer of DG ISI, Lt. General Faiz Hameed, to head the XI Corps at Peshawar. Reportedly, PM Khan wants to use his prerogative to make the appointment by interviewing candidates to the position. The issue has certainly made the troika – the PM, the Army chief and the DG ISI – extremely controversial. It has also raised questions about Khan’s political future, which, given the state of Pakistan’s economy, is dark.
While it is the army that holds the reputation of sneaking behind elected governments, it looks like on September 14, 2021, the prime minister also acted in a similar fashion by making changes to the 1973 Rules of Business of the government issued by the Cabinet Division related with the defence division and acquired the right of appointing officers above the rank of colonel in the army and equivalent ranks in the other services of the armed forces.
This change in the rule book is contested by the army chief, who treated the DG ISI’s change as a matter of inter-departmental transfer rather than a fresh appointment. For the former, General Bajwa does not need PM Khan’s permission. According to the above-cited new rules, Bajwa could transfer Faiz Hameed but needed Khan to sign-off on Nadeem Anjum’s appointment. There are several stories to explain why the move was made but one being that Khan wanted to retain Faiz Hameed for a little while longer because he is the only three-star general invested in longevity of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) rule.
Civilian-military tension isn’t uncommon
There is no doubt in most people’s minds that, ultimately, it’s the army that will prevail. Even though a notification is yet to be issued, the new DG ISI, Lt. General Nadeem Anjum, who was earlier posted as Corps Commander in Karachi, has begun to attend farewell dinners and is headed to Islamabad. Apparently, once he arrives and takes charge, Faiz Hameed will move to Peshawar to take his new charge. In any case, in October three other senior generals will retire, making room for more changes at the army high command.
The crisis will continue as long as Imran Khan refuses a notification that requires him and the army chief to agree to the new name. Question is, will Khan settle for Nadeem Anjum or a compromise will be made by bringing a replacement even if it is not Lt. General Asif Ghafur. Sources say that Khan wanted Ghafur to guard the ISI for him after Hameed left. Ghafur, the former and notorious DG ISPR, seems to have endeared himself to Khan. According to the grapevine, both General Ghafur and his wife are mureeds of Khan’s wife, Bushra bibi, who is reputed for her power of voodoo. Bushra may not be a real pir but is certainly a key to the prime minister.
The army is expected to zealously guard its institutional autonomy. It’s also about the pride of the army chief as a Punjabi Jat, and the institution. The Corps Commanders will not encourage the chief to renege on his order. The army breaks civilian rules frequently but has retained its own power by following its code of conduct. For instance, a general will never qualify to become army chief unless he has commanded a corps. Lt. General Faiz Hameed must fill this gap in his career which he is about to do after which he will qualify as other four generals to be considered for the top slot.
The army has also always kept tight control of the position of the ISI chief that administratively falls under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) but operationally under the army chief. In the past, two prime ministers – Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – tried to control the ISI chief but failed. Bhutto replaced Lt. General Hameed Gul with Lt. General (retd) Shamsur Rahman Kallu while Nawaz Sharif promoted his ISI chief, Lt. General Khwaja Ziauddin Butt, to the rank of a four-star general and then appointed him as army chief to replace General Pervez Musharraf. In the first instance, the army cooperated with the appointment but failed the general by withholding information. The second case resulted in a coup.
Yet another case of tension between the army and ISI chiefs relates to the beginning of General Bajwa’s appointment as the army chief. Then a naughty ISI chief, Lt. General Rizwan Akhter had spread the news about Bajwa’s Ahmadiyya links to make room for General Raheel Sharif’s extension. Akhtar was posted out to the National Defense University (NDU) from where he later took early retirement. Sources say that in the army social circles, he is still treated as an outcast.
Although the conditions as of now seem ripe for a coup because the army will not take kindly to the prime minister’s whims, the crisis is likely to pass less dramatically. Notwithstanding that PM Khan’s action is laden with high drama, the fact is that the army will not take any drastic action against him because it wouldn’t want to land in further crisis. The time is not good for martial law. Furthermore, the army lacks an alternative. Despite the fact that some believe this could be the end of Khan-Bajwa relationship, the prime minister could still survive and complete his term.
Information minister Fawad Chaudhry has indicated that some resolution is being worked out. Khan may have made the situation controversial, thinking that the army is caught in a ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’ situation. Even the opposition parties are not likely to step in and take this burden on their shoulders at the moment. As Maryam Nawaz said, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML(N), does not want to let Khan become a martyr, which means that her party will not assist the army to push out the PTI for this term. This trap, as pointed out earlier, does not mean that the army will allow Khan to shift the center of power.
A great chance being missed
Politically, Imran Khan seems to have created a high drama to build his tarnished reputation. Although a population burdened by growing fuel prices and inflation cannot be bothered by civil-military relations, the prime minister perhaps thinks that building his image as the man who challenged the army chief will give him a lease of life. He is also playing the religion card more frantically by making moves like establishing the Rahmatul-lil-Alameen Authority that will make him popular amongst the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) types. What is for sure is that the next elections in Pakistan will be as controversial and contested as previous ones. This time, it could be the PTI screaming at the top of its head, in case it loses elections, that there was rigging. Khan’s party will build its propaganda on stories from this crisis.
Sadly, Imran Khan is politically street-smart but not thoughtful or intelligent enough to actually reach out to the opposition to build upon a smart move that he may have taken inadvertently. The change in the rules of business for the defense division that authorises the prime minister to make all appointments from the rank of colonel upwards is a major shift of authority. And this change did not come about in a day. It would have followed procedures and come to the PMO and the Cabinet via the Ministry of Defense (MoD). If the prime minister’s relationship with the opposition was not so toxic, the two sides could have cooperated to shift the balance of control over institutional power, which the army was bringing by stealth, in the favour of the elected government. The amendments in the Rules of Business indicate that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) may still have some life left in it and could be resuscitated.
In the past decade, especially the three years of the Imran Khan government, the military seems to be slowly shifting the fulcrum of defense decision-making from the MoD to the National Security Division (NSD). The MoD has been made fairly ineffective and being gradually replaced by the NSD, which is a secretariat of the National Security Committee that is now the primary body for defense decision-making. The NSC was formed in 2013 in which the three service chiefs and the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC) are full members. The NSC was allowed to override the older system of the Cabinet Committee of Defence (DCC) in which Parliament legally and constitutionally has an upper hand even if the parliamentarians may not exercise it, as was the case with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government (2008-13) and later the PML(N) government. Interestingly, the center of power is being shifted away from the MoD despite the organisation being highly militarised at the top. The military seems keen to put life into the NSD which lacks civilian potential. The fact that the current National Security Advisor (NSA), Moeed Yusuf, is a political appointment but lacks the gravitas and confidence of his predecessors makes him more controllable.
In the last three years, PM Imran Khan went out of his way to create institution after institution in which military leaders were given a prominent role. The horizontal expansion of military power under him is phenomenal. However, the above changes in the government’s rules of business are a major road bump that he can only negotiate with the help of the opposition. Unfortunately, no one – in the treasury or opposition – will capture this opportunity and join hands to push back the army chief for good. Pakistan remains stuck with the military at the helm of affairs.
Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)