Imran Khan’s government seems to have caused a temporary crisis in Pakistan, which may prove to be a permanent problem for Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Unless Pakistan’s Supreme Court clearly decides in Gen Bajwa’s favour or gives the government an opportunity to clean up its mess, the general stands to lose his job.
Procedurally, Gen Bajwa will have to doff his uniform on Thursday to make room for his successor. If the Supreme Court pursues its present path — of not extending his tenure — or remains undecided by Thursday, the Imran Khan government will have to seek another list of four or five senior generals from the Army General Headquarters (GHQ) and approve one name, which will be then sent to President Arif Alvi for approval.
Unless there is a mutual compromise, the case may continue and Gen Bajwa could lose the opportunity to even exchange the baton with the next chief of staff. There is no precedence in Pakistan’s history of a new army chief not taking charge from the outgoing chief.
The high drama started after advocate Riaz Hanif Rahi filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging Gen Bajwa’s three-year extension in tenure announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan in August. Rahi later submitted another application withdrawing his petition, but the Supreme Court refused To allow him to withdraw the original petition, making the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Gen Bajwa the respondents. In a provisional order issued on 26 November, Justice Asif Khosa questioned the process through which the Army chief’s tenure was extended, and the logic behind the decision.
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Imran Khan govt’s mess
The Army chief’s appointment or extension in service follows a simple procedure: after a unanimous decision by the cabinet, the prime minister moves an advisory before the president, which is then sent to the Ministry of Defence, where the actual letter of appointment is signed by a section officer. According to Article 243 of Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution, the service chiefs are appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister. However, in this case, PM Imran Khan issued a simple letter of extension on 19August. Upon realising the lacunae, a summary was moved before President Alvi seeking his approval the same day. The process continued to be flawed because the prime minister’s summary has to have the approval of the cabinet, which was subsequently corrected the following day, on 20 August.
Interestingly, in a television interview on 12 September, President Alvi claimed that he had not received any summary regarding Gen Bajwa’s tenure extension. Sources in Islamabad claim that PM Khan’s cabinet met at least thrice on 26 November to sort out the issue and crease out the procedural lacunae, including amending Article 255 of the Army Act. But the procedural problems have continued. Another summary was moved before the president on 26 November for re-appointment, but the letter issued by the president mentioned extension.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court has also questioned the amendment made to Article 255 of the Army Act, with Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa stating that the section amended “is regarding those officials who have retired or have been expelled from service”.
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Past attempts to curtail chief’s power
The makers of the Constitution did not imagine a situation where the tenure would be extended. The main aim of ‘Higher Defence Re-organisation’ of former PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government was to curtail authority of the top commander of Pakistan’s land forces. Not that the structural changes stopped the 1977 coup, but these were meant to bring down the powerful pre-1973/74 Army’s Commander-in-Chief to the same level as the other two service chiefs. Thus, all three service chiefs were made Chief of Staff and answerable to Parliament through the MoD.
It was also believed that every Army chief would retire at the end of his three years’ tenure. Bhutto had drawn a lesson from General Ayub Khan, who had received two extensions, which turned out to be costly for Pakistan’s political system. Thus, extension or re-appointment was kept out of question. Tragically, it was the subsequent Pakistan People’s Party government that extended General Kiyani’s tenure in July 2010 to gain some breathing space.
While the PPP’s move wasn’t resisted by the service, it was looked down upon within the military. Henceforth, General Kiyani lost his moral legitimacy in the service. I remember a retired colonel of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) referring to Kiyani as ‘baji’ (elder sister) that many had begun to do. Later, General Raheel Sharif also tried to follow his predecessor but failed. The matter came to a close with Sharif’s appointment as the head of Saudi Arabia-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition.
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Extension means loss of moral authority
Indubitably, Gen Bajwa’s extension too will be looked down upon by fellow officers and even jawans in the Pakistani armed forces. There are many in Pakistan and in its military who are not willing to buy the argument that Gen Bajwa is needed in the face of ‘regional security environment’. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)’s human rights minister Dr Shireen Mazari, who is often jokingly referred to as General Mazari,justified the extension by arguing, “For those who think we are not in a state of undeclared war with India, facts on ground show otherwise as I have been saying for some time now – ever since the Balakot surgical strike by India & moving on to annex & siege of IOJK”.
What she forgets is that the Army chief had been vying for an extension even before India’s Narendra Modi government made changes in its part of Kashmir by scrapping the special status accorded to the erstwhile state under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. During its proceedings, the Supreme Court has not only challenged the veracity of the claim that General Bajwa is imperative for Pakistan’s security but it has also engaged the Imran Khan government in a debate regarding the tenure of a general.
Despite the high drama, many in Pakistan continue to be less hopeful that the final judgment will be theremoval of the sitting Army chief. Even if it happens, this may not itself challenge the power of the Pakistan Army as an institution. A decision for or against General Bajwa will certainly go a long way in shaping up the Army’s future. An extension is likely to weaken the Army and generate internal insecurity.
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Supreme Court can play crucial role
The amendment in the Army Act may prove to be a curse because, unless changed to its earlier position, any officer could use ‘threat to country’s security’ as an excuse to seek extension. Hence, the government has inadvertently opened a Pandora’s box. If extended, Gen Bajwa would have to make huge internal compromises with his colleagues, like turning a blind eye to their acts or giving them additional perks and privileges. He can either become a tyrant within his institution that he may not be able to afford or become a chief with little moral authority, probably another ‘baji’, in the organisation.
A change at the top, on the other hand, will require the Army to brush up its act to ensure a better distribution of power internally. It is certainly time for a new ‘re-structuring’ of the armed forces. On the civilian side, the Imran Khan government and the political class at large will also have to look at procedural and structural ways to re-organise power between the civilian and the military. The sheer silence of the top political players at this juncture is deafening. A re-organisation of the Pakistani military is not a matter for the generals but the policy elite led by the politicians. They will have to negotiate with a powerful military without any chest thumping. It’s the result which is important. The not-so-perfect Pakistani judiciary seems to have opened a gate once again for re-negotiating power. Wonder who will take the bait.
The author is Research Associate at SOAS, University of London and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets as @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.