General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s three-year extension in tenure once again highlights the dominance of the military over civilians in Pakistan. But this step is likely to hurt the military’s long-term organisational interests. Weakened by the extension, an unpopular army chief portends more political instability in Pakistan and an unreliable negotiating partner for India.
Veneer of democracy
General Bajwa and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan have tried hard to wash away the allegations of a rigged 2018 national election, and portray a sense of democratic normalcy in the country. The extension in the army chief’s tenure will make these allegations resurface.
Imran Khan boasts of a good working relationship with his army chief, but he has ceded significant political authority to General Bajwa. The army is actively involved with the country’s foreign, economic, business and education policies today. Its expansive military footprint is not likely to shrink in the foreseeable future. According to Gallup Pakistan’s 2017 survey, 82 per cent respondents expressed trust in the Pakistan Army. Yet, in the same survey, 81 per cent expressed a preference for democracy over military dictatorship.
Why desire for extension
Qamar Javed Bajwa has been in the army since he was 18. The institution, then, is the sum total of his adult life. Every officer dreams of reaching the institutional summit, but only one makes it to the top job. Under Pakistan’s civil-military arrangement, the army chief is also the most powerful person in the country. This is why generals, great and small, on becoming army chiefs are tempted to seek tenure extensions. In 2010, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani became the first army chief to receive an extension. Both generals following him, Raheel Sharif and Qamar Bajwa have also wanted one.
Besides personal reasons, there is also an institutional factor driving the desire for extension: the gradual expansion of the army chief’s role in the non-military sphere. Since General Bajwa’s oversight role extends to the economy, foreign affairs, and various aspects of domestic policy, he would have found the three-year tenure period constraining. To accomplish anything of consequence, he requires a longer tenure as the army chief. But these additional responsibilities also distract him from his primary mission of leading the Pakistan Army.
A chief who breaks rule
Professional militaries work on the principles of adherence to rules, fair play, and the idea of institution before self. An extension in tenure violates all the three principles. Which is why professional militaries look down on extensions for their service chiefs. These militaries rarely grant an extension, and when they do, they link it to a purpose, and limit its duration.
An extension in tenure breaks the rules of service. The army chief in Pakistan serves as a father figure to his organisation. His position vests him with enormous legitimacy. In a military-dominated political system, a chief can grant himself an extension in service, but such a decision will fail the legitimacy test within the organisation.
When the chief is perceived as a rule-breaker, the prestige of his office stands damaged. General Bajwa has regularly warned his officers against corrupt practices, reminding them how well the army looks after them. After the extension, his words will not carry the same weight in the organisation. By extending his tenure, he has taken what he was not owed.
Denying the deserving
An army chief’s extension in tenure disturbs the promotions and appointments cycle. The Pakistan Army has a steep pyramid for professional advancement. The stakes are particularly high for officers placed at the higher end of the pyramid. Over the next three years, General Bajwa will ensure that his loyalists are in key positions, thereby shutting out deserving officers who he does not know or trust. The extension will adversely alter the promotion paths of senior officers and their juniors who had hoped to ride on their coat-tails. Those who are denied in this hyper-competitive environment will feel embittered and blame their chief.
Individual over institution
Finally, the extension places the interest of an individual over and above the interest of the institution. The government’s messaging has personalised General Bajwa’s extension in tenure, projecting him as the saviour in a moment of crisis. This argument will be a tough sell within the army. Had this been a crisis-driven decision, the extension could have come later, closer to the retirement date at the end of November. By this time, the government would have had a clearer picture of the Afghan peace process as well as the tensions with India. Additionally, crisis-driven extensions do not last for three years. Perceived as selfish, chiefs who serve long tenures are neither popular, nor respected among the officers. Generals Musharraf and Kayani are perfect illustrations of this dynamic.
Pakistan, today, faces multiple challenges. The American-Taliban deal is precariously positioned, the relations with India remain tense, the CPEC projects are behind schedule, and the economy is sinking. General Bajwa has placed himself and the army at the centre of all these challenges by extending his tenure. Citizens and officers alike are going to look to him for solutions. With the albatross of extension around his neck, an internally weakened Bajwa will struggle to cope with these challenges. As the few pretensions of democracy gradually disappear, the Imran-Bajwa working relationship will likely be strained.
What this means for India
This has serious implications for India. Imran Khan’s proximity to the army, it has been argued, should make him a more reliable negotiating partner than his predecessors. But after the extension, Imran will become increasingly dispensable, and his political weakness will rob him of credibility on the negotiating table.
Similarly, if General Bajwa faces headwinds from within the army, he will not be in any position to reconcile the differences with India.
Amit Ahuja is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California – Santa Barbara and the author of Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties without Ethnic Movements (Oxford University Press 2019). Views are personal.