Can the Pak army be tamed within

Harsha Kakar
The hashtag #GoBajwaGo has been trending high on Pakistan Twitter for some time, aimed at General Bajwa, the Pakistan army chief. Many handles affiliated to Imran Khan’s PTI have been leading the charge. Some bloggers have also been arrested for demonizing the army. Such has been the desperation to lower General Bajwa’s image, that Aisha Bajwa, a Pakistani American, who was part of the delegation which met the Israeli President is being touted as a relative of General Bajwa, whereas she has no link with him, except the name.
In every speech that Imran has made, he has accused the army, which claimed neutrality in his ouster, of acting on orders of the US and Israel.Imran’s anger is against the methodology adopted to dismiss him. Most political parties have always demanded that the army stay neutral and avoid getting involved in politics, which it ignored. Imran, on the other hand, accuses the army of being neutral and not backing him by applying pressure on the opposition. An irony.
Imran was nurtured by the army, such that elections were rigged, political parties split, crucial members forced into the PTI or sidelined. However the army played safe and ensured he never enjoyed absolute majority. His coalition was the creation of the ISI. Like every PM before him, in the latter part of his tenure, he began believing that he has the power to dictate terms. A similar mistake was made by Nawaz Shariff, who was also overthrown by the very army chiefs he appointed, Musharraf and Bajwa. None learnt from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was ousted and hanged by Zia UlHaq, again an army chief he nominated.
Imran is aware that he has the backing of the army’s middle and junior lot, mainly because of his projected clean image and hence the army top brass cannot act arbitrarily against him. He even hinted that middle and lower-level army personnel must disobey their seniors and join in his march. This may be sedition or inciting mutiny, but Imran remains confident that the army is on the backfoot.
He was hoping to appoint General Faiz Hameed as the next army chief, as he remains close to him. Hameed as the DG ISI had nurtured Imran in politics and subsequently acted as his eyes and ears in curtailing dissent and suppressing political opponents. The ISI has always controlled politicians and on the directions of the army chief ensured the government is secure.
The current government is now working to curtail powers of the ISI and hence the army. Shehbaz has given the ISI official instructions to screen senior civil servants before they are appointed to sensitive posts. His intention is to make the ISI accountable to the civilian leadership rather than Rawalpindi. Consensus on this exists between all political parties, including the PTI. Whether this would be implemented or remain a directive on paper remains to be seen.
Rawalpindi has always announced that it has no role in politics and is neutral. However, every government in Islamabad mentions that it has full support of the army, and both are on the same page. Imran was no exception. In an interview to Al Jazeera in Sept 2020, Imran stated, ‘we (civil government and the army) have complete coordination, we work together, the military completely stands with all the government’s democratic policies.’ When the army- government relationship ends in a messy divorce, the army is accused. This is again natural in Pakistan. Imran stated, ‘If the establishment does not take the right decision, then I will give it to you in writing that they will be destroyed, and the armed forces will be the first ones to be devastated.’
All Pak PMs have moved on quietly after being removed. The only one challenging the mighty army is Imran Khan. His accusations have rattled the army’s brass. Their only response has been to ask the public to stop trolling it. The army in a press release mentioned, ‘Pakistan Armed Forces take strong exception to such unlawful and unethical practice and expect all to abide by the law and keep the Armed Forces out of political discourse in the best interest of the country.’ Imran refuses to listen.
Chowkidar (Army) chor hai is a common cry in Imran’s rallies. Imran’s hostile and accusing statements have pushed the Generals on the backfoot. It appears that they have no solution on how to control him. They cannot be seen to engage him as he would exploit it in his rallies, damaging the army’s reputation further. He has already publicly stated that he has refused calls from the army brass.Imran, in his present avatar, has nothing to lose.
The army is aware that rigging as was being done in previous elections may not succeed in the future as Imran could exploit it in his rallies. Hence insisting on elections, as demanded by Imran is not a solution for the current. The days of a military coup are gone unless anarchy reigns in the country. Currently, the army brass is confused. It cannot remove the current dispensation and bring Imran back. It has to let Shehbaz work towards rebuilding the economy. All it can do is watch and hope.
In Imran’s case the army can only push other state organs to act which include the National Accountability Bureau, Supreme Court and the Election Commission. The first steps appear to have been taken as a close associate of Imran’s wife, Farah Khan, has been accused of corruption and investigation is in progress. Simultaneously, the National Assembly passed a resolution to move the supreme court against the anti-national and anti-army remarks passed by Imran. These actions may stall Imran temporarily, but he would bounce back. The army fears that he knows too much and can spill the beans if pushed too far.
For once, the army is on the defensive and open to exploitation by political parties to curb its power and influence. It remains to be seen if such a step does take place.Imran has created the environment and if carefully pushed, it could change Pak democracy forever.
The author is Major General (Rted)