Understanding the extension business in Pakistan

‘Power lies in the hands of those who control the means of violence. It lies in the barrel of a gun, fired or silent’.

Prime Minister Imran Khan recently announced a three year extension for Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa. This move has nothing to do with national security as was mentioned in the government notification issued in this connection. Rather it is a case of the army chief using the power of his institution to favour one political group to come to power and Imran Khan is just paying back the favour.

My view about the extension issue is that this move does not bode well for the army as well as the country. Talks about an extension usually start quite early in the country and a few months ago many interested in the working of Pakistan Army had asked me about this development. I gave my view in the following paragraph written about two months ago:

“2019 looks more like 2007. General (r) Pervez Musharraf had come under criticism from different quarters of the society as a result of which the army’s reputation was sullied. Only a change of command provided an exit for the embattled general. General (r) Ashfaq Pervez Kayani took over and slowly consolidated his command by sidelining the old guard and then convincing all players that the army has turned a new page to distance itself from its controversial past.

Once again, the possible face-saving exit for the army, which has come under harsh criticism in recent years for its policies, would have come through a change of command in November 2019. However, personal interests of three key players including PM Khan, Army Chief General Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General Faiz Hamid now converge where extension of General Bajwa has been approved by the sitting government. In present circumstances, a three year extension will serve all three parties well.

After the extension, Bajwa can now enjoy a few more years of absolute power. Imran Khan has given him an extension to make sure that an unknown factor does not come into the equation and disrupt his claim to power. Currently, Imran is confronted with enormous challenges where he has not been able to put his house in order. Rising economic woes and diverse opposition groups joining forces can cause a severe headache for the ruling elite. By having the army brass in his corner, the PM believes he can weather any storm. Therefore, he would prefer to continue with a known entity rather than venturing into unchartered territory.

Due to the three years extension given to General Bajwa, ISI DG Faiz will be among the top contenders for the highest military post in 2022. After 18–24 months as DG, Bajwa can appoint him Corps Commander to make him eligible for the top slot. I’m not in favor of any extension and Bajwa’s case will have a negative impact on the army. Army is no more seen as a neutral body and extreme polarisation of Pakistani polity is now directly affecting the army as an institution.”

General Bajwa did not just walk into Prime Minister’s office to demand an extension in his tenure. This was done in a way where ideal circumstances were created to leave no other option for the government. It is not a secret that the army brass has made a strategic decision to give two terms to Imran Khan and General Bajwa is a fan of our current PM.

It was not in Imran Khan’s interest to bring a new player into the game at this point in time. General Bajwa had put his own ducks in a row for this outcome by using promotions and postings of senior officers to make his position stronger. In his interactions with the British and American interlocutors, Bajwa successfully conveyed the point that he is the man for the hour. The buzz word was ‘continuity’.

The promise to British was made in reference to the Line of Control (LOC) and the Americans were captured with promises of full support to the Doha process to get them out of the Afghanistan quagmire. These are the policies of the army at the moment and the right course to take in the current circumstances, but an army chief can present the case in a way where he can reap the benefits for himself.

For instance, General Pervez Kayani in his more than a dozen bonhomie meetings with American Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and General Raheel Sharif actively working on his own post-retirement lucrative package are two recent examples of this age-old tactic.

There was a possibility that former army chief General (r) Raheel Sharif would complete his three years of assignment in Saudi Arabia and General Bajwa could follow in his footsteps by winning a very lucrative post-retirement contract. This door was closed when Prince Muhammad Bin Salman gave Raheel a three year extension to continue his service as chief of the allied Islamic forces. Now the only option for this ‘indispensible’ officer was to win an extension at home and remain relevant.

In my conversations with dozens of officers of different ranks in the last two decades, I have not found a single officer who is in favour of extensions. This includes even those who benefited from coveted appointments, postings as well as post-retirement benefits from the benevolent hand of the ones who got an extension. As no one is interested in what civilians say, let’s look at the opinion of army officers.

Former Air Chief Air Marshal Zulfiqar Ali Khan stated that “institutions are destroyed when indispensible individuals enter it”. Another former Air Chief Air Marshal Zafar Chaudhary was of the view that, “You are insulting individuals and the system by insisting that work cannot be done without one particular individual. If the system is depending on an individual, then that system is wrong.”

Another fine officer who is critical of the culture of sycophancy once told me that “if everyone is so great then how can one explain disasters of biblical proportions that have befallen our country”. In addition, Late Lieutenant General (r) Jahandad Khan once told me that “officer is only remembered for what he gave to the army and not the other way around?” He was right because all those who used different tools available to them to climb the promotion ladder simply faded away with time.

Late Major General Naseerullah Khan Babar used to tell me with his characteristic mischievous smile that “my dear, we have our own perfect legal ways of corruption for which you cannot convict us in any court of law”.

Ambition is an essential part of success. To be fair to General Bajwa, he is not a monk but a fallible human being. Like all of us, he relishes the absolute power he is enjoying and wants another lap on the track. This is understandable at an individual level. However, at the institutional level, he has taken the army into a rabbit hole.

The aspirants for the top slot are naturally disappointed and there will be whispers in the army in connection with this issue. Meanwhile, General Bajwa will take the opportunity to shuffle the brass in late September and appoint junior officers to important positions. One can already figure out that ‘lady luck’ will smile on officers inside Bajwa’s orbit who will get promotions and prized appointments in the coming days.

On the other hand, all opposition parties on the receiving end squarely blame the army brass for many problems being faced by the country and they may conclude that the only opening for them is to make things uncomfortable for the army. There is severe restriction on the print and electronic media, but drawing rooms and social media is already abuzz with criticism of this decision.

In the last two years, Pakistan has slowly walked into a dead end street. Usually, the way out of such a situation is large scale violence on the streets or natural/unnatural death of key players. The death of General Muhammad Zia ul Haq in 1988 and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 are some examples of the above practice.

Many observers of Pakistan are of the view that the army brass and judiciary is politicised in the sense that both institutions have taken it upon themselves to interfere in and balance out political fights. They may have many genuine reasons for this action, but one cannot escape the consequences. In such situations, political thought is first ‘de-politicised’ in the sense that the ruling group’s rivalries with opposition parties are now being mediated by outsiders and disgruntled elements almost always run to the army for support.

This is exactly what happened to Imran Khan where more than half of his cabinet has been parachuted into his inner circle by the army. This is going to get worse and in the process the army’s reputation will be tarnished beyond repair. The second phase is the ‘militarisation of politics’ in the sense where some in opposition see no chance of representation in the normal political process and opt for either street violence or armed struggle against the state.

Modern armies are large bureaucracies and Pakistan army is no exception. General Bajwa is no Rommel and the one who was going to replace him in November 2019 was not going to be Guderian.

They are all above average hard working officers who work inside their own institution to reach higher ranks. Army itself ensures a level playing field and a culture of meritocracy. Anyone from among the top dozen senior officers will be as good or as bad as the others. There are always exceptions but most tread on a ‘well beaten path’ with quite visible career sign posts to reach ‘respectable mediocrity’.

The real question is the negative fallout for the institution when rules are bypassed, and institutional norms are trampled upon. Such measures divert attention from the real challenges being faced by the army. Institutional concerns about higher direction of war, improvement of efficiency and long-term sustainability of a very top heavy brass are some of these issues that need to be dealt with.

General Bajwa was not a charismatic officer in his 30 odd years of military career. He is given deference due to the fact that he is the army chief. Since the announcement of his extension, his approval ratings have dropped several hundred points like a bad stock market day. He compromised on the respect gained over a 30 year long career for an additional three years of vanity. This is not my opinion but the verdict of history.

The long list of army chiefs who basked in the artificial light of extension includes, Ayub Khan, Muhammad Musa, Zia ul Haq, Pervez Musharraf and Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. They are all castigated and ridiculed but alas after they hanged their uniforms or departed from this world. The ones still in this world are lonely and shunned even by their own erstwhile comrades and one hopes that the ones in heaven are not as lonely.

One simple fact that is ignored very often is that problems of modern nation states are beyond the capacity of any single individual; whether civilian or uniformed. Unrealistic expectations invariably result in huge disappointments and the result is that all the good is washed away very quickly when analysed with the hind sight of a 20/20 vision.

Whether civilian or military, focus should be on strengthening the institutions. This takes time and there are no short cuts to it. Scoundrels may sneak in and occupy high positions but if the system is reasonably functioning then the damage is manageable. The British left behind a decent police, bureaucracy, education system and armed forces. It saw a gradual degradation by putting individuals ahead of the institutions.

“Soldiers ought more to fear their general than their enemy” — Michel De Montaigne.

03 Sep 19/Tuesday                                      Source: Madium