Pakistan Army Vowed to 'Remain Apolitical' in a Presser. But Can It Be Trusted?

Mohammad Taqi | 01 November 2022
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The proclamations made by the army and the ISI chief at the unprecedented presser are welcome; though as the old Russian saying goes, "One should trust, but verify!"

The divorce proceedings between Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan and his army benefactors, which had started last October, culminated in a very bitter annulment on Thursday, October 27.

The army took the extraordinary step by holding a joint press conference with Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum. Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director-General Lieutenant General Babar Iftikhar spoke at the press conference on behalf of the army.

There is no precedent in Pakistan’s post-1971 history of an incumbent ISI chief, including the vocal and high-profile ones, formally meeting the press. But the brass finally felt compelled – and comfortable – to brandish the biggest guns it needed to blast its embittered former protégé and the narrative he has been relentlessly building since his ouster in a no-confidence move this past April. And the duo lived up to the expectations.

The stated purpose of the media talk was to discuss the recent assassination of a Pakistani journalist and anchor Arshad Sharif in Kenya at the hands of the local police. The slain journalist was closely allied with the army in the past. But after Imran Khan’s falling out with the junta, he was perceived to be close to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party.

Khan, who has been persistently going after the army leadership, pounced on the opportunity to imply that the army had orchestrated Sharif’s murder.

The former prime minister’s gripe about the generals is that they decided to change political horses midstream and withdrew their nearly unconditional support to him, paving the way for the combined opposition parties to oust him. His single-point agenda has been to get back in favour with the army and have it put him back in the saddle.

To this end, he has tried both cajoling and threatening the brass, with eventually diminishing returns.

Khan used his party’s and personal electoral victories in numerous by-elections to build political pressure on the brass to induce an early general election. Without actually naming them in his rallies and media talks, Khan has deployed innuendos to label the generals from “neutrals” to “traitors and conspirators” like Mir Jaffar and Mir Sadiq who are doing America’s bidding to keep him out of power.

Khan has been energetic, ruthless and persistent, honing in on his message which is awfully warped but resonates with his cult-like following, including within the army rank and file.

Decades of army patronage have helped him create not just a devoted public constituency but also one within the armed forces. The odious potion disparaging traditional politics and politicians, which the army had helped him sell, was also consumed by its own. And Khan knew it well.

He and his partisans started hinting that there was a rift among the top brass, and his followers even talked about that at a colonels’ coup.

The chicken had come home to roost and the army found itself fumbling. The brass seemed to be giving kid-glove treatment to a man who was baying for blood. It tried to work out an arrangement where Khan would back off the demand for immediate elections and come back to the National Assembly, in return for a fair general election earlier than the term but not too early.

But, at the same time, the army leadership started to assert itself within the organisation.

A couple of weeks ago, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is set to hang his boots up next month, promoted a dozen officers to the lieutenant general rank. He has also been holding formal and informal sessions with both mid- and high-level officers explaining how the army’s ‘Imran Khan project’ went awry and why it was time to cut their losses and cut him loose.

Khan, on the other hand, has been gradually escalating his rhetoric. He was undeterred even by his disqualification in a long-running corruption case, which was unimaginable when the army had his back. In Arshad Sharif’s mystery-shrouded murder, just days before a long march he was planning, Khan found a cause he could exploit and pin it on the army. But he clearly bit off more than he can chew. With the October 27 presser, the army’s gloves came off.

The director-generals of the ISI and the ISPR together deconstructed Khan’s narrative, which has only been about getting himself back in power.

After proclaiming that the army had nothing to do with Sharif’s murder and calling for an independent inquiry, including by international agencies, the director-generals went after Khan, all guns blazing. They spilt the beans on his secret meetings with the brass even after his ouster and promised to give the incumbent COAS a lifetime extension in return for ushering the current dispensation out.

They reconfirmed what has largely been known or speculated about, including the fact that his campaign against the army brass was never about balancing the lopsided civil-military equation in Pakistan.

The director-generals chose their words carefully and all but indicted Khan, the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and Sharif’s former media group for luring him to Kenya, only to be killed in cold blood.

Whether the duo was able to turn Khan’s followers against him remains to be seen, but the content of their remarks seemed to be laying the groundwork for a criminal case against him, were he not to fall in line.

And in a country where former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was framed for murder by the army and condemned to hanging by the superior judiciary at the junta’s behest, it could be an extremely ominous development. But even if things don’t go down that extreme, the army-Khan duel has to have a logical conclusion.

Khan has been chiding the ISI by calling its Islamabad commander ‘Dirty Harry‘, a reference to the 1970s movie character played by Clint Eastwood, who pushes the envelope of the law. Interestingly though, Dirty Harry was chasing a psychopath, and he always got his man!

With this much bad blood between the army and Khan, it is unlikely that he would be allowed to return to the high office. To defang Khan, the army has multiple options up its sleeve. Scores of politicians that the military establishment has herded into the PTI over the years could be as easily pried away, leaving a skeleton party.

Letting the pending legal proceedings against Khan in other cases take their course could result in his permanent disqualification from politics and jail time.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party could virtually unravel without Khan. After all, it has never been an organic political force but a near-fascist cult around him, nurtured by the army and the media under its control.

A factional fight for the leadership position is a strong possibility, leading to the flight of the losing ones from the party. How things play out depends on what kind of response Khan is able to muster, starting with his long march, which is supposed to commence as we go to press.

The civil-army equation

While my money is on the long march being a dud, there is a possibility that he could stir up some trouble. But one thing is certain: the army has ensured that there would be no internal rebellion or coup d’état in support of their fallen angel. The director-generals’ press conference clearly shows that the army has contained whatever internal dissent the brass was dealing with and none of it would be tolerated any further. The junta, they indicated, has officially wrapped its project ‘Imran Khan’ up.

Perhaps even more important were the repeated declarations by the two director-generals that the army “as an institution has decided that it would stay out of politics and only perform its duties under the constitution”.

The director-general of ISI reiterated specifically that his directorate would not meddle in politics and stick to professional duties only. It was really amusing to see the director-generals make these pronouncements about remaining apolitical and within the ambit of the constitution, while addressing a thoroughly political and totally unconstitutional presser.

The director-generals stated that this decision to step back was taken after extensive consultations with the formation commanders and other officers, and not just the current top brass. They even said that the officers involved in the decision-making would eventually be leading the army for the next 15 years and the commitment to remain apolitical is, therefore, permanent. Both the generals expressed that they would welcome the genuine criticism coming their way and respect the right to dissent. It really sounded too good to be true.

The ISI chief, Lieutenant General Anjum’s eloquence, his mispronunciation of certain Urdu words, a soft and restrained demeanor and bags under his eyes, reminded one of the former army dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq. The late dictator had also promised a lot – from early elections, to accountability, to an Islamic state fashioned after the State of Medina – only to renege on every count and perpetuate the army rule.

Still, one would like to take the director-general of ISI at his word. If he, and the outfit he spoke on behalf of, are serious about bringing even a modicum of balance to the civil-army equation, they could find many partners across the ideological and party lines. But their seriousness in doing as they say must be visible and verifiable.

The annual Asma Jahangir Conference (AJC) was held in Lahore on October 22 and 23. However, its aftermath tells another story. When Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari started speaking at the conference, a section of the crowd chanted slogans calling on him to release the progressive Pashtun lawmaker, Ali Wazir, who has been illegally incarcerated in Sindh province, where the minister’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) rules.

The finance minister snarkily told the sloganeers to take their protest to those who can actually release Wazir, i.e., the army.

At the same event, the chief of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), Manzoor Pashteen, made a hard-hitting speech holding the generals responsible for first unleashing the Taliban in the Pashtun territories and then launching operations in the name of neutralising the same terrorists.

What ensued in the next couple of days was quite remarkable.

The PPP’s co-chairperson and the former President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, issued a press release condemning the slogans raised against the state institutions at the AJC. The finance minister himself apologised for his own remarks about the army at the conference. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the federal law minister both condemned the sloganeering, and the latter subsequently resigned, citing personal reasons. And, a first information report was filed against Pashteen, under charges of terrorism.

There has been no lull in the army’s dirty war against the Baloch separatists or its treatment of the Pashtun nationalists. Even as the floods submerged large swathes of Balochistan earlier this year, the enforced disappearances of the Baloch men at the hands of the army went on as usual.

Wazir recently told his supporters that the officials pressed him to apologise to the army brass, but he refused.

Separately, the chief justice of Pakistan packed the Supreme Court with his preferred judges, bypassing the conventions set by the apex court itself. The superior judiciary has virtually been the army’s handmaiden and a partner in every subversion of the constitution and legal transgression committed or orchestrated by the junta. There is really a ghost of a chance that from the AJC fallout to the law minister bowing out, all of this had nothing to do with the army arm-twisting the civilians into absolute submission.

In an ideal scenario, the civilian leadership would have manoeuvred and mobilised to capture the political space created by the army-Imran vendetta. But the current civilian dispensation in Pakistan lacks both the ambition and the capacity to rise to the occasion.

The three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is perhaps the only leader capable of regaining some of the ground lost to junta since his army-orchestrated ouster in 2017. But the constraints of self-exile, possibly health and fitness issues, and the resultant dependence on his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, and a party leadership not terribly keen on locking horns with the military establishment, have clearly hamstrung the elder statesman.

In the absence of a robust civilian challenge or a resilient comeback by Khan, the army would recalibrate but not redirect. It will move away from the flagrant intervention and control of civilian affairs for the foreseeable future. But it would continue to control the power levers fully and exclusively. It would prefer a tutelary role from behind the scenes, in a throwback to the first few years after the dictator General Pervez Musharraf’s 2008 ouster.

The proclamations made by the director-general of ISI and the director-general of ISPR are welcome; though as the old Russian saying goes, “One should trust, but verify!”

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. 

This article was originally published on The Wire.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.