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Pakistan Army veterans are voicing support for Imran Khan after ouster. Here’s why it matters

Experts say remarks by retired army, navy officers in support of PTI ‘display the huge difference between conclusion drawn by the authorities and conclusion drawn by the masses’.

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New Delhi: Amid the recent political turmoil in Pakistan, a few retired military officers, such as Lt Gen (Retd) Tariq Khan, Lt Gen (Retd) Muhammad Haroon Aslam and former Chief of Naval Staff Afzal Tahir, have voiced support for ousted PM Imran Khan, who lost a no-confidence vote Sunday, and criticised the Supreme Court ruling that preceded the vote.

Last Thursday, despite doubts that it would be able to resolve the constitutional crisis, the top court ruled that the Deputy Speaker’s rejection of a no-confidence motion against Khan, and the President’s subsequent decision to dissolve the National Assembly on Khan’s advice, were illegal actions.

A day later, Lt Gen (Retd) Muhammad Haroon Aslam put out a strongly-worded tweet saying, “The constitutional and political impasse is primarily due to blatant violation of Article 69 of (the) Constitution by (the) Supreme Court. The concept of parliamentary sovereignty was infringed.”

In Pakistan, it is widely considered that the judiciary and military establishment work “hand in glove”, as is evident in the Supreme Court’s invocation of the “doctrine of necessity” in the past to rubber-stamp coups.

ThePrint spoke to experts who concluded that by disagreeing with the top court’s recent ruling either through op-eds or tweets, the retired officers are ultimately disagreeing with the decisions of the military establishment — a body they were once part of.

Asked about the significance of these remarks by ex-officers, former Pakistani ambassador to Italy Zafar Hilaly told ThePrint: “It’s not unusual for retired officers to criticise the military or the government. But what is surprising is the extent to which they disagree with the way Imran Khan was ousted. These are people who don’t usually express such views, so they must feel strongly about them.”

He added: “These op-eds by retired officers display the huge difference between the conclusion drawn by the authorities and the conclusion drawn by the masses.”

Also read: Pakistan drama not over. It’s on between ‘short-term’ Shehbaz, ‘honest’ Imran, ‘mature’ Bajwa

‘Was Bajwa disagreeing with Imran’s conspiracy thesis?’

Pakistan Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa’s comments on 2 April, a day before the first vote of no-confidence against Khan was slated to take place, were a good indication of the fissures between Khan and the military.

Bajwa said the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a “huge tragedy” and “must be stopped immediately”, while also mentioning Pakistan’s “long and excellent strategic relationship with the US”. This was in stark contrast to Khan’s anti-US and anti-EU rhetoric at the time, and his allegations of a “foreign conspiracy”.

Ex-Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Asad Durrani noted that Bajwa’s comments were starkly different from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government’s stance.

In an op-ed for Reporter’s Diary titled ‘Conspiracy or Bust’, published on 6 April, Durrani probed this a little more, asking, “When Bajwa took a position on the Ukraine crisis, not quite in line with the government’s policy; was it to make some reconciliatory noises to placate the Yanks [Americans]; express his disagreement with IK’s [Imran Khan’s] conspiracy thesis; or was it a precursor to bad tidings for his once favourite prime minister?”

‘Hope PTI gets back the power they deserve’

On 8 April, a day after the Supreme Court’s verdict, Lt Gen (Retd) Tariq Khan declined to head a commission formed by the federal cabinet to investigate an alleged “foreign conspiracy” against Khan.

On 10 April, in an op-ed in Reporter’s Diary titled ‘Why I Refused to Head Letter-Gate Commission’, the former military officer said he couldn’t take up the position as he felt time constraints would cause further complications.

“My principal reason for having done so was that it appeared that the government would not last for more than a day or two… with the government living on borrowed time and apparently for just another 48 hours, this commission would shift to an entity under the new administration against whom it had been set up in the first place,” he wrote.

He added that under the new government, the commission would likely be withdrawn or that no cooperation would be extended to it. It was likely that the commission would eventually get dissolved and be used to clear the names of the politicians who ousted Khan, he wrote.

A day later, Tariq Khan penned another op-ed titled ‘It’s Now or Never!’ in which he adopted a stronger stance in support of Imran Khan. “If I were to vote it would be the PTI… No power today would keep me from supporting the PTI from getting back the power they deserve,” he wrote.

Asked if Tariq Khan’s op-eds were simply an attempt to save face, Pakistani columnist and human rights defender Gul Bukhari said, “It would appear so. He clearly got trolled for the first op-ed, which must have prompted him to take a harder, more pro-Imran Khan stance in the second one. But I think what Tariq Khan and Afzal Tahir have written speaks to a larger point.”

“These retired army officers are probably frustrated with the military’s decision to let the court come out with a verdict that was so by-the-book. After all, this is the same military that conjured the ‘doctrine of necessity’ via the Supreme Court. So, they are completely flabbergasted. Now, these officers have a right to be flabbergasted because they are not privy to the complex way in which the military has handled the ‘Imran Khan project’.”

According to Bukhari, when Khan first entered office, he was seen as a national hero, but after a year or so, “it became clear that he lacked the proper skills to govern, as evident in his numerous gaffes such as saying that Germany and Japan share a border, and also, the economy went from bad to worse under him”.

“That said, the military could not simply get rid of him because it had also made the mistake of isolating itself from almost every other political party. It waited for this to come to a head, via a no-confidence vote, and has tried to be as neutral as possible by not imposing martial law or anything like that. It has worked behind the scenes. For example, why did Imran Khan delay his speech post the Supreme Court’s verdict after a meeting with Bajwa? And why wasn’t the address live? Clearly, it was approved beforehand,” Bukhari said.

Also read: Imran has damaged the idea of Pakistan. Don’t expect it to turn into a normal country soon

‘Supreme Court has usurped affairs of state’

Like Lt Gen (Retd) Muhammad Haroon Aslam, former Admiral Afzal Tahir slammed the Pakistani judiciary and accused it of “usurping” the affairs of the state.

In an op-ed in Reporter’s Diary on 9 April, the former Chief of Naval Staff wrote: “In the current matter, the entire responsibility of running and managing the affairs of the state have been taken up (usurped) by the honourable Supreme Court.”

He also sarcastically remarked on specific political instructions given by the court. “The fact that our honourable judges have such a clear vision about [the] politics of the country should be a source of great satisfaction to all Pakistanis,” wrote Tahir.

The former officer also felt the verdict interfered with the affairs of the National Security Council (NSC). “With this precedence (sic), the Supreme Court, in future, can and might take suo motu notice of a matter pertaining to deliberations of NSC and deliver a verdict contrary to the committee’s analysis and decisions, as has been presently done,” he said.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: New PM Shehbaz Sharif wants ‘Pakistan speed’ in govt offices, Pakistanis say ‘RIP bureaucrats’

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