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Game on in Pakistan

Bajwa played his cards based on the belief that Imran is his puppet and would do his bidding. However, he did not cater for Imran’s belief in the supernatural and his inherent fear of being discarded. If Bajwa backs down, he would face the wrath of his own hierarchy. The game, though short, is on.

Harsha Kakar | New Delhi | Updated :

What has been considered routine across the world makes headlines in Pakistan. Military appointments rarely get news coverage or are as controversial as in the case of Pakistan. For over a week, Pakistan’s media is buzzing with discussions on a possible collapse of the hybrid government (as they term it). Hybrid implies Rawalpindi decides, Islamabad implements. Every Prime Minister in Pakistan, Imran Khan is no different, proudly states that the army and she/he are on the same page, though they may be on similar pages in different books. This statement holds ground till the PM is overthrown, after which the army becomes the enemy.

Never has a Pakistan PM challenged an army decision and got away with it, an act Imran Khan is attempting to do. Questioning the army chief invariably occurs during the latter half of a PM’s tenure, when confidence levels rise. Every PM appoints an army chief of his choice, who ultimately becomes his nemesis and removes him from power.

At the centre of the current army-political rift is the appointment of the head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. The DG ISI is the internal manipulator of politicians, political parties and religious groups, which can threaten sitting governments, apart from controlling externally operating terrorist groups. He also indirectly controls the media and courts. This makes the individual the second most powerful person in Pakistan, after the army chief. As per Pakistani law, the DG ISI, a Lt General rank officer, is supposed to function under the Prime Minister, though he operates under the directions of the army chief. Although he is to be selected by the PM, this policy is never followed. The PM is just a rubber stamp to sign the army chief’s choice.

The current DG ISI, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, had, in the view of the army chief, overstepped his brief by visiting Kabul without orders and created a Haqqani led government, which not a single nation is willing to recognize or support. This pushed Pakistan to the backfoot and worsened its ties with important allies including the US. The rising internal instability in Afghanistan, due to a lack of global support and recognition, is spilling across the Durand Line into Pakistan. There were other reasons too which had made the army top brass suspect Hameed’s intentions. The primary one was his growing proximity to Imran Khan, which created doubts about his intentions of becoming the next army chief.

Legally, Hameed would be in contention for being appointed the next army chief in case General Bajwa retires as per plan in October 2022 without seeking another extension, and hence would need to command a corps. Employing this pretext, the army transferred him to command the Peshawar corps and appointed Lt Gen Anjum as his replacement.

Imran refused to sign the appointment letter resulting in his discussion of the issue with General Bajwa on multiple occasions. It must be remembered that the last time a PM (Benazir Bhutto) appointed a DG ISI against the wishes of the army, she was removed from the chair. Such is the concern within Pakistan on the growing political-military rift that its stock market dropped over 600 points and Imran Khan had to address his party PTI’s core group to confirm that the rift has been resolved. Rumours state that Imran wants Hameed to continue for personal reasons.

For Imran, his second tenure is largely dependent on the continuation of Hameed as the DG ISI. Hameed had orchestrated his last election, pushed Imran’s opponents into oblivion and manipulated religious hard-line groups to the benefit of the PM. Most small political parties backing the wafer-thin majority of Imran are remote-controlled by Faiz. Faiz was also chastised by the Pakistani Supreme Court and high courts. The Supreme Court did so for his signature on an agreement to end the strike by the TLP in 2017, displaying interference of the army in political affairs and the high court for attempting to influence judicial proceedings. Evidently, all these actions were in support of Imran.

The worst kept secret in Islamabad is that Imran relies on his soothsayer wife’s decisions on who and when to pick an individual for a key position. In Hameed’s case, Imran was advised to continue with him for some time, if not till the elections. Without Hameed, with whom Imran is close, his chances of re-election are in doubt. Further, Imran is suspicious that this change by Bajwa is to ensure his ouster. The other factor is that this is possibly the first Pakistani government that has handed over foreign and domestic policy to the army and is happy to do their bidding. This control over Imran made the army chief overconfident, resulting in his ordering transfers even before they were signed by the PM.

Pakistan’s ministers, led by their information minister Fawad Choudhary, made multiple public appearances seeking to assure the nation and party workers that the rift had been settled for the moment and an appointment would soon be made. The delay in signing the approval has blocked all senior army postings for the moment. Hameed has yet to vacate his chair blocking the entire chain of moves.

Within Pakistan, the wait is on to see who blinks first. General Bajwa has already stated that with three retirements due this month, approvals cannot be delayed. In case Imran rejects the appointment of Anjum it implies he is challenging the decision of his mentor, Bajwa, which cannot be allowed to happen. In case, he meekly signs the order then he has no standing left and would be taken to the cleaners by the opposition. A Catch-22 situation.

Bajwa played his cards based on the belief that Imran is his puppet and would do his bidding. However, he did not cater for Imran’s belief in the supernatural and his inherent fear of being discarded. If Bajwa backs down, he would face the wrath of his own hierarchy. The game, though short, is on.

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.