GETTING more than one tenure is not unusual for army chiefs in Pakistan, and the three-year extension for Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa was not unexpected. In fact, it had been on the cards for some time and the announcement by the government appeared to be just a formality. A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said that the decision had been taken in view of the regional security environment. Interestingly, the announcement came just as the PTI government completed one year in power.
The security situation may surely be a factor, but there appear to have been other, perhaps more pressing, political reasons behind the decision. Army chiefs have often prolonged their stay themselves. But this is the second time that such a decision has been made by a civilian government.
A similar justification was offered when the PPP government granted a second term to Gen Ashfaq Kayani in 2010. The circumstances may have been different, yet political expediency seems to have been a determining factor in both cases. When has the security environment for Pakistan — whether internal or external — been less perilous?
There is no question about the professionalism and ability of Gen Bajwa as a commander. His deft handling of the recent crisis with India has been duly acknowledged. Indeed, individuals do matter, but it is the institution that matters most. Myths are often woven around army chiefs in Pakistan. So it is not surprising to listen to commentators on TV talk shows projecting Gen Bajwa as a great visionary.
The security situation may be a factor, but there have been more pressing reasons for the extension.
The virtues ascribed to him make him appear head and shoulders above his predecessors. There has been a lot of talk about a ‘Bajwa doctrine’. If one were to go by this so-called doctrine, it would seem that the army chief had a grand vision about everything — from critical political problems to the economy and foreign policy. What these commentators fail to understand is that the so-called Bajwa doctrine is more institutional thinking than one man’s views.
Surely we are facing a serious external security situation with the latest escalation by India, yet we are not in a state of war, and a change of command would not have any negative impact on our defence, given the military’s institutional strength.
A timely transition of the military command strengthens the institution and enhances its professionalism. No one is indispensible, however capable he may be. This is a lesson Imran Khan should have learnt. Decisions taken on political grounds will have a negative effect both on the institution and the democratic process.
It was also a political decision when the former prime minister picked a dark horse for the coveted post. It is obvious that the choice of Gen Bajwa was based more on political considerations than any order of seniority or merit, though there was no question about his experience.
Probably the thinking behind the decision was to have someone who was amenable to civilian authority. Gen Bajwa has the reputation of an easygoing officer, but a tough professional. However, given the inherent complexities, one could not have expected him to be pliable.
It was quite simplistic on the part of the former prime minister to think that the sources of civil and military tension could simply go away with the transition in army leadership. Ultimately, it is the institution that prevails irrespective of who is in command. It is a lesson perhaps every civilian government tends to ignore.
Undoubtedly, the civil-military imbalance has been a major source of political instability, hampering democratic process in the country. Despite three democratic transitions, the space for the military establishment has increased. Indeed, the PTI government has moved cautiously, trying to maintain good working relations with the generals.
Undoubtedly, there is much goodwill among the top brass for the PTI government that had been missing in the past. Of course, Gen Bajwa has largely been instrumental in building this close relationship. A fledgling administration certainly needed the establishment’s support that could provide it some breathing space. That has perhaps, been the major reason for granting an extension to Gen Bajwa.
The paradox of populism is starkly evident in Imran Khan’s first year in government. One year on, the country is politically more polarised and unstable. The PTI government has not taken the country to what it promised. The democratic space has shrunk with freedom of expression being curtailed. Imran Khan’s personal charisma and popular appeal, too, is diminishing with the worsening crisis of governance.
Given this situation, it is not surprising to see the military becoming more dominant. Perhaps continuity of the military command gives the government a sense of security. But any failure in improving governance, or the inability of the administration to prevent an economic slide, could widen the existing imbalance, allowing the military more space. It is a lesson to be learnt from the past.
It is quite apparent that the army chief is now a part of the ruling diarchy. It is true that every army chief maintains a high public profile, yet Gen Bajwa has assumed an even greater presence than his recent predecessors. It was unprecedented for an army chief to be part of the prime minister’s delegation at the White House. He is also a member of the important Economic Development Committee.
The hyperactive ISPR has also been instrumental in building Gen Bajwa’s public profile. The balance of power is likely to tilt more towards the establishment in Gen Bajwa’s second term. It is true that Pakistan is confronted with serious external security challenges, and to deal with the situation, the country requires close cooperation between the civilian government and the military leadership. But that should be more institutional than based on individuals.
Surely, Gen Bajwa is a professional soldier. But when such extensions are seen to be part of political power games, then it also affects the military’s professionalism. The creeping authoritarianism in the country has reinforced the perception of the military’s role in suppressing democratic rights. This legacy does not bode well for an army chief granted a second term in office.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2019