Pakistan: The ‘War’ Within – OpEd

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In his November 2022 farewell address, outgoing Pakistan army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa conceded that the main reason for the Pakistan army being “criticised from time to time,” was its unconstitutional “involvement in politics for the last 70 years,” and claimed that “the army [had] decided after a lot of deliberation that it will not interfere in any political issue.”

Since this was for the first time in Pakistan’s history plagued by military rule that the country’s powerful army chief had personally made such a candid public admission as well as given the assurance of Rawalpindi steering clear of politics, one had expected that these announcements would be widely welcomed by the people. However, they were received with indifference and there are reasons for this.

One, the people of Pakistan know very well that expecting the army’s top brass to meekly surrender the wide-ranging extra-constitutional powers that it enjoys without any associated accountability is purely a delusional fantasy. Two, while Gen Bajwa glibly talked about the army divorcing itself from politics, his speech itself was pregnant with political innuendoes that outrightly belied his promises. Lastly, assurances of non-interference in politics given by an army chief who himself brazenly indulged in the same for the better part of his tenure and decided to turn a new leaf only at the fag- end of his tenure wasn’t very inspiring! 

The people of Pakistan weren’t wrong. The current Pakistan army chief, Gen Syed Asim Munir may have maintained a stoic silence on the issue of Rawalpindi’s involvement in political affairs of the country, but his actions left no doubt in anyone’s mind to the contrary. His barefaced attempts to ensure that former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf [PTI] party are politically destroyed is an unambiguous signal that Rawalpindi has no intentions of forfeiting its role of playing king maker in Pakistani politics.

When PTI protesters attacked military assets on May 9, 2023, many saw this massive anti-army outrage as the beginning of the end of Rawalpindi’s supremacy. However, they were wrong and The Friday Times Editor-at-Large Raza Rumi’s post-election prediction that the military establishment “may have lost in the short-term, but it has a history of rising like a phoenix,” came true. 

In less than a week after this incident, Gen Munir convened a special corps commanders’ conference. The army press statement released thereafter stated, “The forum expressed firm resolve that those involved in these heinous crimes against the military installations and personal/equipment will be brought to justice through trials under relevant laws of Pakistan, including Pakistan Army Act and Official Secret Act.” [Emphasis added].

What needs to be noted here is that while one the one hand legislatures in Islamabad were still wondering what to do, the Pakistan army had already decided to play the  lawmakers role by unilaterally ruling that those accused for the May 9 riots would be tried by the army in military courts. Even though it had had no constitutional sanction to adjudicate on this issue, neither the legislature nor the judiciary opposed Rawalpindi’s diktat. No prizes for guessing what this indicates.

All-out efforts were made by the forums and agencies concerned to legalise the military’s arbitrary decision. The very next day after the special corps commanders’ conference, Pakistan’s National Security Committee [NSC] in a hurriedly convened meeting expectedly recommended exactly what Rawalpindi had decreed during the special corps commanders’ conference, and the Federal Cabinet approved the NSC recommendations without any changes the following day. With the army being able to legalise its decision within a matter of three days, it’s abundantly clear that in Pakistan, the army continues to enjoy absolute power.

Just last week, Director General [DG] of Pakistan army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] Maj Gen Ahmed Sharif once again reaffirmed Rawalpindi’s pre-eminence in Pakistan by saying that “There is only one way back for such political anarchists, that it [PTI] asks for an earnest apology in front of the nation and promises that it will forgo politics of hate and adopt [a] constructive [style of] politics.” [Emphasis added].

This statement sets specific preconditions that Rawalpindi wants the PTI to fulfil before its political rehabilitation can be considered, and this leaves no room for any doubt that PTI’s political future is in the hands of the Pakistan army.  And by adding that “In any case, such dialogue should take place between political parties [as] it is not appropriate for the army to be involved,” DG ISPR has willy-nilly accepted that Rawalpindi is well aware of exceeding its brief.

After PTI chief Imran Khan outrightly rejected the DG ISPR’s offer by making it clear that if the “establishment” [army] was not interested in dialogue, the PTI would not pursue it either, a peeved Gen Munir quickly changed track and to save face announced that there would be “no deal with the architects and plotters of the violent protests.” As things stand today, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Pakistan is being held hostage to what’s unfortunately an ego driven confrontation between Gen Munir and Imran Khan and this is not an exaggeration!

Pakistan’s Dawn in its editorial of May 9 has assiduously observed that“the PTI-military stand-off has been the root cause of Pakistan’s political instability.”[Emphasis added].It has also revealed the harsh reality that “neither side seems interested in a resolution” and hence has suggested government intervention to break this deadlock, which is indeed a good suggestion. 

But with Gen Munir despite saying that the Pakistan army knows its “constitutional limits” while simultaneously crossing swords with PTI, the likelihood of his smoking the peace pipe with Khan, to say the least, is unlikely. Similarly, despite Rawalpindi’s devious machinations that have reduced the status of PTI to virtually a political non-entity, Khan seems to be in no mood of entering into a compromise with the army which he rightly refers to as the “establishment.”  

Most importantly, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s ability to broker peace is suspect. By declaring that “The impure plan of May 9 was not just a rebellion against Pakistan but against the state, the Pakistan Army and army chief Gen Asim Munir,” [Emphasis added], he’s made his absolute subservience to the Pakistan army chief more than evident. 

So how on earth can Khan [or for that matter anyone else] ever expect Sharif to be an impartial intermediary capable of amicably resolving the Rawalpindi-PTI impasse?

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. He is a ‘Kashmir-Watcher,’ and now after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals and think tanks.

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