Bluff of Neutrality

There is a counterpart mapping in democracies that typically warrants domain-defined politicians to engage with each other.

Bluff of Neutrality

Photo: SNS

There is a counterpart mapping in democracies that typically warrants domain-defined politicians to engage with each other, whereas functional professionals in the governments like the Chief of Army Staff restrict their engagements to their respective equivalences and functional realm. Not so in the Pakistani narrative where Pakistani Army Chiefs have traditionally hobnobbed far and wide across the political spectrum ~ just as any visiting Head of State to Pakistan must drop into the ‘Army House’ in Rawalpindi, in an ode to the reality of burly Pakistani Generals holding the essential reins.

The official Pakistani warrant-of-precedence that ranks the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff at Article 6 (In India, it is under Article 12), well below even the Pakistani Deputy Speaker to the National Assembly or Ambassador-at-Large, is basically a farce as the real power has always stemmed from the Rawalpindi General Headquarters.

The Pakistani military has unilaterally decided when it wants to usurp power officially (1958-71, 1977-88 and 1999- 2008) or when it decides to ‘select’ a civilian government to maintain the charade of democracy. The Pakistani military chiefs have also arrogated to themselves the right to define the length of their tenures with extensions, and the current Chief of the Pakistan Army, General Qamar Bajwa, is no different after having given himself a three-year extension in 2019!


More importantly, Gen Bajwa had led the ‘selection’ of the Imran Khan government in 2018 and all other political leaders had cried foul and called it a ‘Deep State Selection’. Speaking from the safety of distance in London, Nawaz Sharif had openly said, “Gen Bajwa, you will have to answer for record rigging in the 2018 elections”. However, the Pakistani Army soon got tired of Imran Khan’s vainglorious grandstanding that almost sought to diminish the Pakistani Military – this was trigger enough for Gen Bajwa to do a U-turn and manipulate the ouster of his one-time protege, Imran Khan, in 2022.

This time it was Imran Khan who was left huffing and puffing his angst at the ostensible ‘neutrality’ of the Pakistani Army, as he above all would know better having enjoyed their initial favour in 2018. In a curious case of Pakistani normalcy, Imran Khan was found ranting against ‘neutrals’ (a term that he used sarcastically for the Pakistani military) and that, ‘history will blame them for what they did to the country!

As his six-year tenure as the Chief of the Pakistan Army for Gen Bajwa finally comes to an end in November 2022, his trip to the United States of America at this late juncture of his extended term did raise eyebrows. Many posited a further extension while some speculated about a postretirement occupation (one of his predecessors, Gen Raheel Sharif has continued to head the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition in Riyadh for over five years).

Counterintuitively, the evacuation of American troops from neighbouring Afghanistan has not weakened the relationship between Washington DC and Islamabad and it has ironically become more robust. Irritants like the decidedly anti-US politician i.e., Imran Khan (who did point to the infamous ‘foreign conspiracy’ at the Americans) and overambitious Generals like the former ISI boss, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed (who made a cavalier appearance with the Afghan Taliban at Kabul, after the US troops had withdrawn), have been cut to size.

Signs of renewed engagement within the US-Pak security space are quietly obvious with the targeted strikes of high-profile targets in Kabul. Even though the Pakistani DG ISPR denied the ‘use of Pakistani soil’ in the role of killing dreaded terrorist, Ayman Al Zawahiri (with a suggested allusion to Kyrgyzstan) ~ the fact that Bishkek didn’t accept the same makes analysts suspicious of the more probable likelihood, that is the Pakistani hand.

Too many ‘coincidental’ changes in the Pakistani ‘establishment’ that work towards the advantage of the US have taken place in recent times, and that points to the relevance of the US acquiescence, at all levels. As is the norm, during his recent visit to Washington DC, Gen Bajwa met up with Lloyd James Austin, US Secretary of Defence, Jacob Jeremiah Sullivan, National Security Adviser and Wendy Ruth Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State and expanded volubly on economics, diplomacy, the floods situation and, as officially mandated, on the security situation. His extracurricular expansions included statements like, ‘There could be no diplomacy either without a strong economy’!’

The US has tactically not restrained the Pakistani Army Chief from going beyond the syllabus, in the full knowledge that the institution of the Pakistani military or ‘establishment’ remains the Real McCoy in Pakistan, everything and everyone else is dispensable. In a uniquely Pakistani drama that convinces no one, Gen Bajwa also reassured the gathering in the US that the Pakistani Armed Forces had distanced themselves from politics and wanted to remain so.

However, it was the reconfirmation of his explicit pledge to leave office in November that was most telling in terms of the outcome of his visit (without the usual entourage of other senior military officials). General Bajwa would have managed some quid pro quo from the equally desperate Americans, even if it weren’t to be an extension as that would look optically very questionable and de-legitimising.

The Americans have had a history of unhinged and amoral ‘deals’ with the Pakistani Army to retain their own leverage in the restive region ~ even if it doesn’t come packaged and announced with officialese. Gen Bajwa too would have an acute sense of timing to strike parleys with the Americans, which he did. The confirmation of stepping down could well be part of the script as Gen Bajwa has carefully placed his most probable successor, Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, the current Director General of ISI, as part of a comfortable exit strategy.

Importantly, Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum had replaced the pro-Imran Khan Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, after much wrangling and mudslinging with the then Prime Minister. So, all is well with the Pakistani ‘establishment’ and the Pakistani Army which notoriously is said ‘to have a state (as opposed to a ‘State that has an Army’) is here to stay infinitely, irrespective of a General Bajwa or no Bajwa post-November 2022.