Imran Khan’s fate hangs in balance amid persisting unease in civil military relations in Pakistan

How much of a long rope the army leadership gives to the Imran Khan government may depend on a variety of complex factors over the next few months

The takeover by Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum as Director-General, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), took place eventually on 20 November, bringing to a close the unseemly spat that occurred between Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan over the held-up 6 October chain of Lieutenant Generals’ transfers. Farewell calls of Lt Gen Faiz Hameed on the president, prime minister and foreign minister were unusually played up in the media before his departure to the XI Corps assignment in Peshawar. In sharp contrast, there was complete silence on Anjum’s advent.

All manner of speculation surfaced in the interregnum, about the rupture in civil-military relations and options for change being considered at either end. The name of Lt Gen Muhd Abdul Aziz, IV Corps commander, Lahore, senior-most among Lieutenant General, floated briefly for Army Chief, in case Imran took the drastic step of sacking Bajwa prematurely. This rumour did not gather much traction, no doubt because the collegiate group of senior Generals remained steadfast in support of the incumbent chief.

The accord with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), Pakistan, to call off its agitation was worked out under the military establishment’s initiative, embarrassing the prime minister, who had talked tough about enforcing the writ of the State. TLP’s name has been taken off the terrorist parties’ list under schedules of the Anti-Terrorism Act and its leader, Saad Rizvi was released by courts just before the death anniversary of its founder, Khadim Rizvi.

The higher judiciary too flexed muscle, urging the prime minister to appear in the Supreme Court while petitions of aggrieved parents of the Army Public School, Peshawar, the calamity of December, 2014 were being heard. Angry judges asked why no FIRs were filed against those at the helm, including then army chief Gen Raheel Sharif and DG, ISI, Lt Gen Zaheer ul Islam. The prime minister’s appearance proved to be more of a distraction.

After two bills could not be passed in the National Assembly and a planned joint session of Parliament had to be deferred on 11 November, for lack of support from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)’s allies, Opposition parties appeared buoyant about the military establishment’s new-found impartiality in domestic politics. The Chaudhrys of Gujrat, Pervez Elahi and Shujaat Hussain, criticised the PTI for ill-treating their Pakistan Muslim League {Quaid-e- Azam} (PML-Q) workers in Punjab. Governor Mohd Sarwar joined the chorus of criticism.

The Opposition’s Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) announced a revised schedule of public rallies in Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar and Lahore, culminating in a ‘Long March’ to Islamabad, to protest against high inflation and continued mismanagement of the economy by the Imran Khan administration. Before tabling a possible vote of no confidence against the PTI government, they toyed with the idea of a ‘get Sanjrani’ operation, to remove the Senate Chairman first.

However, this optimism proved short-lived as the joint session was held on 17 November, comfortably passing 33 bills including controversial ones introducing electronic voting machines and empowering overseas Pakistanis to vote. Legislators ruefully acknowledged having ‘been brought’ to the joint session, familiarly receiving telephone calls from the ISI, urging them to attend. The Opposition is now left with the option of challenging the ‘illegal and unconstitutional bulldozing’ of these legislations in courts.

Predictably, this led to questions about a new ‘patch up’ deal to restore the ‘same page’ between the Army and its ‘hybrid’ protege, through another extension to Gen Bajwa in November 2022. Under the amended Army Act, the Army Chief can continue till he is 64 years old. Though Bajwa would get two more years, such an extension would be very unpopular within the army, as 16 more Lieutenant Generals would retire before a new Chief comes in. Lt Gen Faiz Hameed remains the front-runner in this regard, after he completes one year at the Peshawar Corps command, especially if Imran Khan continues as prime minister till then. However, this closeness to the prime minister may rankle with senior Generals, who dislike excessive military kowtowing to civilians. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if Lt Gen Anjum can emerge as his own man at ISI, distancing the institution from promoting only the ruling party’s interests.

Former Gilgit Baltistan judge Rana Shamim’s affidavit, signed curiously enough before a public notary in London, alleged that former Chief Justice Saqib Nisar had suggested harsher judgements against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryam. An audio clip to that effect was leaked, though its authenticity has been denied. Much to media consternation, Justice Minallah at the Islamabad High Court deemed this to be a contempt matter against journalists who raked up the issue.

Fiery speeches by lawyers at the Asma Jehangir conference in Lahore (20 November) berated the Army’s repeated interruptions of democracy in Pakistan, leading upset Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed to remonstrate that judicial independence remained unfettered. A speech by exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was delivered virtually at its concluding session, despite abortive internet disruptions.

Pakistan’s economy continues to cause serious concern. Inflation has hit the common man badly as essential commodity prices remain high. The rupee continues to slide downwards against the dollar. An increase in electricity tariffs is imminent. Negotiations to release the IMF tranche have still not worked, with international donors insisting on a curb on borrowings and fresh measures to raise resources. A bill on the autonomy of the State Bank has been drafted reluctantly after IMF’s insistence. Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s former finance minister, Miftah Ismail, criticised the State Bank’s latest decision to raise benchmark interest rates to 8.75 percent as ‘catastrophic’. None of the government’s managers seem to have cogent remedies for a bailout.

Lack of trust and sullenness persist in civil-military ties. How much of a long rope the Army leadership gives to the Imran Khan government may depend on a variety of complex factors over the next few months. The PTI’s majority in the National Assembly remains slender, as does the Opposition’s glaring inability to offer a viable alternative. Meanwhile, the masses struggle to cope with the worsening economic situation.

The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views expressed are personal.

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