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Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa with Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photograph: Courtesy Twiitter account of DG, ISPR

Taha Siddiqui is an award winning journalist living in exile in Paris since 2018. He runs safenewsrooms.org, a digital media platform that documents censorship in South Asia.

This past week, Pakistan saw an unprecedented civil-military and political turmoil as the Pakistan’s superior courts questioned the legality of the decision by the government for granting a three-year extension to General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistan Army chief, who was to retire at the end of November 2019. For now, the courts have suspended the extension and have granted the General a six-month relief. The judiciary has thrown the ball in the court of the parliament and have asked them to constitutionally legislate this matter in the parliament within the stipulated time period, as until now, there was no clear legal provision for giving out such extensions in the tenures of Pakistani military chiefs.

General Bajwa took office in 2016, and was chosen by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. At the time of his selection, he superseded other military generals who were in line for the post, because he was deemed to be pro-democracy by PM Sharif. It is believed that he was one of the military commanders in 2014 that advised the army against a coup when Islamabad was besieged by protesters led by Imran Khan, the current prime minister of Pakistan, who was in opposition at that time.

But since Bajwa took charge as the army chief, he has overseen the undoing of democratic project and is credited to have been behind the reversal of many civil liberties previously enjoyed by the Pakistani public. Many also suspect him and the army under his command to have orchestrated the victory of Imran Khan in 2018 general elections along with the ouster of Nawaz Sharif and his subsequent imprisonment over trumped up corruption charges. Sharif recently flew out of country for medical treatment after falling critically ill in prison. Bajwa has also been responsible for curtailing press freedoms in the country and cracking down against critical voices. Under him, many journalists and civil society activists say Pakistan is facing the worst kind of media censorship since the draconian military dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq in the eighties, who oversaw the Islamization of Pakistani society. 

The government cited that Bajwa was getting an extension due to the poor regional security situation, especially in the wake of the Kashmir crisis that was triggered by the revocation of Article 370 by the Indian government. New Delhi stripped away the special status of the valley, prompting severe criticism from Pakistan as Islamabad believes it has claim over the region. But if Bajwa stays on, peace in the South Asian region may actually deteriorate as witnessed during his first three years in office. Political violence in Afghanistan is at an all-time high, with the militant groups including the Afghan Taliban, which are believed to be backed by the Pakistan Army, carrying out regular attacks in their home country. Also, in Indian administered Kashmir, terrorism has also peaked, with one of the worst terror attacks happening in the history of the conflict in February this year. Dubbed as the Pulwama attack – it saw 40 dead security personnel when a member of the Pakistan-backed militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad blew himself up in a suicide attack. Following the bombing, India responded with carrying out strikes inside Pakistan at alleged terrorist training camps. Pakistan responded with military power too, bringing both nuclear armed countries closer to a dangerous confrontation, that only subsided after international powers intervened, asking both sides to show restraint.

Despite such a track record of the security situation, Bajwa seems to be getting another lifeline, even though, in past Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has vehemently opposed extensions for army chiefs. When General Asfhaq Pervez Kayani got an extension in 2010 under the then government of Pakistan People’s Party, which was led by the Bhutto family, Khan severly criticized the government for granting Kayani the extension, calling it a deal between the government and the military. But now Khan seems to have done the same himself, and perhaps for the same reasons as did the previous government – to survive in office.

PM Khan knows he has no guarantee that the next army chief would be as supportive of him as this one, given the past “collusion” he had with Bajwa, especially since there is immense pressure on the civilian government right now to improve its performance. Pakistan is currently going through a severe financial turmoil. Inflation currently is an all-time high of ten years, touching almost 13%. The country has also been unable to pay its external debts, and has been forced to borrow more to pay its old loans. Amidst all this, there are growing voices that Khan should step down as he has not been able to deliver, even though more than a year has passed since he took office. So in such circumstances, continuity in the military top brass is a safer bet for Khan, rather than having to build a relationship with someone new.

But now the courts have upset the plans of Khan and Bajwa to continue with the same setup. The move by the Supreme Court’s top judge Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa comes merely a few weeks before the judge’s own retirement. It also came in the wake of PM Khan criticizing the judiciary for allowing former PM Sharif to fly out of the country without a financial bond that the government wanted the Sharif family to deposit for security if he did not return. It appears that CJ Khosa decided to assert the power his office has, and regain the perception of independence, that was seen eroding away under his predecessor, Justice Saqib Nisar. CJ Nisar was known to be close to the military and has been accused of collaborating with Bajwa in the political witch-hunt that helped Khan come to power in 2018.

Now, Khosa seems to want to remove that perception that the judiciary and the military collaborate. Many expected that the courts would throw out the extension altogether but CJ Khosa perhaps also knows that upsetting a military chief can bring him trouble once he retires next month on December 20th 2019, and therefore he went as far as to ask the Pakistani parliament to legislate the tenure extension, citing that there was no clear law providing for such to happen currently.

However, the court’s decision to intervene and question the extension prompted a political debate that was not present before and allowed the Pakistani media to scrutinize the issue too. Usually the local media remains silent and self-censors when it comes to such military affairs. But this time around, there was a fierce debate in the media, with many questioning the government’s insistence on keeping Bajwa as the army chief, and wondering whether there were not other capable military officers in queue who could command the army.

One such critical editorial was published by the Dawn newspaper, Pakistan’s leading English newspaper that stated that “… the regional security situation — the official reason given for the extension — is for the army to handle as an institution, rather than being an individual’s job. Surely there are other officers more than capable of leading the army. Gen Bajwa’s next step will determine whether he is thinking of himself or his institution.”

It also appears that the military institution itself has been facing internal turmoil over Bajwa’s insistence to stay on even after the negative limelight he has received. Recently, Bajwa reshuffled some of his Corps Commander team, and although the reasons were not made public – there are indications that some of the commanders that were either transferred or forced to resign were those who were unhappy with Bajwa’s conduct in pursuing an extension and ruining the image of the military. Also, because of Bajwa’s extension, many of the generals will now retire without ever having a chance to become the chief, which has also led to discontent among the top ranks. There is a similar previous case during the time of the General Pervez Musharraf’s rule from 1999 to 2008. Following his ouster in 2008, Musharraf told the media that he suspected that his own spy chief, the then DG ISI General Kayani (who became the army chief after Musharraf and got an extension for himself too) orchestrated his ouster because he wanted to grab power. Recently, when the Pakistani capital Islamabad became besieged by opposition political groups, especially religious parties demanding PM Khan’s resignation, and also hinting at Bajwa’s retirement, it is believed that there were some elements within the military top brass that encouraged the protest, in a bid to try to upset the government’s plans and send Bajwa home.

The parliament session is suppose to begin from next week and it is likely to take up the issue and once again the political opposition parties will have a major role to play in deciding the fate of the army chief. Already, the debate has exposed the government and military nexus and Bajwa seems to have lost much public respect. The military chief has weakened his own influence and moral legitimacy. So when the issue is brought up in the parliament, it may provide an upper hand for civilian forces in the country to assert themselves and we might see the military’s authority further eroding if the opposition parties manage to pressure the government into a corner and demand that the government send Bajwa home.

Tags : Chief Justice Asif Saeed KhosaGeneral Qamar Javed BajwaImran KhanPakistanSupreme Court

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