When Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa was appointed Pakistan Army chief in November 2016, the general consensus was that the scales tipped in his favour since he was apolitical. Probably that’s why even though he superseded four Generals who were senior to him, his elevation was well-received as it portended at least a decline, [if not an end] to the military’s growing interference in the country’s political and foreign policy affairs. Gen Bajwa didn’t disappoint either because within a month of becoming the army chief, while addressing a gathering of senior officers of Rawalpindi garrison, he has been quoted by the media as telling them that “The army has no business trying to run the government,” and making it clear that “The army must remain within its constitutionally defined role.”
However, a lot of water has flowed down the Indus since then and the General whom the world had assessed to be an ‘apolitical’ person, turned out to anything but that. The first serious manifestation of Gen Bajwa’s latent proclivity for politics came to the fore during the 2018 general elections, when even before polling began, everybody knew that it would be cricketer turned politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party would come to power since it had the blessings of Rawalpindi. Now whether this allegation is true or not is a moot point, but even though PTI ‘won’ the elections and Imran Khan did become the Prime Minister, the common refrain is that Khan was ‘selected’ (by the military) and not ‘elected’ (by the people)!
So, it was but natural that when Khan extended Gen Bajwa’s tenure by three years, this contentious decision was largely seen as quid pro quo for PTI’s election victory. Signed by the Prime Minister himself, this notification ran into problems with the judiciary and though it finally saw the light of day, it exposed how the army was a law unto itself. Moreover, citing “regional security environment” to justify this decision makes it look all the more suspicious because it clearly implies that Pakistan Army has a leadership void at the top level as none are professionally competent enough to replace Gen Bajwa. This is something that even the most rabid Pakistan Army baiter won’t accept! So, at the end of the day it’s not Pakistan or its people but only Gen Bajwa who has won!
In a clear departure from convention, Gen Bajwa has got himself nominated as a member of the newly created National Development Council headed by the Prime Minister giving Rawalpindi the opportunity to expand its writ by getting the right to officially meddle in the economic affairs of Pakistan. Therefore, it was not at all surprising when Gen Bajwa held at least three closed door meetings with business honchos in Karachi and Rawalpindi, purportedly for finding ways to ‘fix’ country’s ailing economy. Gen Bajwa himself justified these meetings by saying “National security is intimately linked to economy while prosperity is function of balance in security needs and economic growth.” But if this was the case, then what’s really surprisingly is why no one from the Ministries of Finance or Commerce were present during these meetings- unless the military wanted it to be so?
But the General who just four years ago held that “the army has no business trying to run the government”, now has no qualms in doing exactly this- as is evident from the secret meetings that Gen Bajwa has been holding with opposition party members. In a country like Pakistan where the army has always been calling the shots, politicians of all colour and hues know very well that in order to survive they need to remain in its good books. So, even though it’s undesirable, but while politicians cozying up to the army isn’t something unusual in Pakistan- but political parties holding secret meetings with the army [with his intelligence chief in attendance], certainly is!
What makes this whole issue of secret meetings even murkier is Director General Inter Services Public Relations (DGISPR) Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar’s revelation that “In both meetings he [PML-N leader Mohammad Zubair] talked about Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz.” Whereas Zubair has denied this, but the fact of the matter is that if this wasn’t the case, then why was information regarding this meeting kept under wraps by ISPR? Even if we believe Maryam Nawaz “that the meeting was convened to discuss the Gilgit-Baltistan issue,” it’s paradoxical that when she strongly feels that “the political leadership should not be called nor should it go to discuss such issues,” as “these decisions should be made in parliament, not in GHQ [General Headquarters],” then why did her party functionary Zubair have not one but two secret meetings with Gen Bajwa?
I hold no brief for Pakistan Army, but since Zubair has complained that “Such meetings are secret; I don’t understand as to why the army spokesperson needs to talk on it,” it’s obvious that besides Gilgit-Baltistan, there was certainly some talk about Nawaz and Maryam during these meetings. Why else is Zubair so riled by Maj Gen Iftikhar’s disclosure? So, there are good reasons to believe the DGISPR’s revelation that “During these meetings, whatever was discussed, the army chief made it clear to him [Zubair] that whatever their [Nawaz and Maryam’s] legal issues are will be solved in Pakistan’s courts, while the political issues will be solved in the parliament.”
Maj Gen Iftikhar’s seemingly innocuous statement may have been made to discredit Nawaz Sharif, who just a couple of days earlier has lambasted the army in his video link All Party Conference speech by saying, “Our struggle is not against Imran Khan… today, our struggle is against those who installed Imran Khan and who manipulated elections to bring an incapable man like him into power and thus, destroyed the country.” Whether the attempt of the not-so-experienced Pakistan Army publicity chief to humiliate Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N has succeeded or not is not the issue; but in his exuberance, the DGISPR has inadvertently ended up scoring a self-goal!
Two years ago, when Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of Islamabad High Court alleged that Pakistan Army’s Inter Services Intelligence [ISI] was manipulating the judiciary and that “their personnel get benches formed at their will,” the army sought Supreme Court intervention “to ascertain the veracity of the allegations and take actions accordingly.” The expected happened and Justice Siddiqui who was pipped to become Chief Justice of Islamabad High Court was sacked by the President of Pakistan on the recommendations of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) under Article 209(6) of Pakistan Constitution. However, as this clause is meant to remove judges who are “incapable of performing the duties of (his) office or (has been) guilty of misconduct” it emerges that the judge’s remarks were unfounded.
If the army’s non-interference in the country’s judicial process is an established fact and Gen Bajwa is ensuring that “The army has no business trying to run the government,” then why did Zubair secretly seek the military’s indulgence in sorting out some legal and political issues that compelled the army chief to remind him that the same would be resolved in courts and parliament? After all, Zubair is no political greenhorn- besides serving as Chairman of Privatisation Commission of Pakistan with the status of Minister of State, he has also been the Governor of Sindh and so he surely knows his onions and wouldn’t have requested assistance in resolving political issue and legal issues if the army had no control over the judiciary or legislature!
Pakistan Army’s bid to manipulate the legislature and judiciary is not new. Is it not true that in 1994, the then Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar admitted in Parliament that “it was the ISI that had disbursed funds to purchase loyalty of conservative mass and nationalist public figures to manipulate the General Elections held in 1990?” Isn’t it also a fact that Gen Pervez Musharraf himself admitted that the then army chief Gen Raheel Sharif had helped him leave Pakistan by “influencing the courts” and went on to explain that it was only after the army chief “got the government to relieve the pressure that they were exerting, the courts gave their judgement and allowed me to go abroad for treatment” ?
Therefore, even though Gen Bajwa’s may have purportedly snubbed Zubair by telling him that “the army should be not be dragged into these (political and legal) matters,” the fact of the matter is that Rawalpindi always did-and still continues to exercise substantial influence over the functioning of the country’s state institutions, with special focus on the legislature and judiciary. Why else would it hold secret meetings with opposition political parties? If it was a well-intentioned act aimed at bringing unanimity amongst political parties on the issue of Gilgit-Baltistan’s future and the army was playing the role of facilitator, then why was it kept a secret and why wasn’t the Prime Minister incorporated in these parleys? Lastly, what was the need for DGISI Lt Gen Faiz Hameed to be present during a meeting if it had an exclusively political agenda?
Though Federal Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed who attended one such meeting may have gone on record to say that Gen Bajwa had made it absolutely clear to the opposition that the army should not be dragged into politics, but when the army chief starts holding secret meetings with a senior politician functionary, then discerning who exactly is dragging whom into politics becomes impossible!
Tailpiece: During the hearings on Gen Bajwa’s extension, when the Attorney General mentioned that “The oath of an army officer says that they would lay down their lives if need be. This is a very significant thing,” Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa shot back saying, “‘I will never involve myself in any political activities– this sentence is also part of the oath” and then delivered the coup de grace with his parting shot that “It is a very good thing [for army officers] to stay away from political activities”! But then, some people never seem to learn.