A shambolic affair

Updated November 28, 2019

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THIS is without a doubt the most shambolic episode in the PTI government’s tenure so far.

The snowballing controversy over the extension of army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa’s tenure is entirely of its own making, and one that cannot be laid at the door of previous dispensations. Moreover, the government’s ineptness has not only damaged its own reputation but also threatens to drag the military as a whole into disrepute.

As far as it was concerned, the speculation about whether the army chief would be given an extension was laid to rest in an official statement on Aug 19 confirming that Gen Bajwa would indeed serve another three-year tenure. Then there was confusion about whether Imran Khan was the competent authority to take such an action, which was apparently not the case. Later, the government claimed that President Arif Alvi, as required by law, had signed off on the notification.

On Tuesday, Chief Justice Asif Khosa, in a stunning move, suspended the extension order on the grounds of procedural anomalies, and the fact there is no provision in the Army Regulations to support such an extension.

The episode lays bare the PTI government’s authoritarian streak and its lack of maturity — a lethal combination.

For example, consider the manner in which, a few hours after the Supreme Court order, the cabinet rushed through an amendment to the Army Regulations to include a provision for an “extension in the army chief’s tenure”.

There are profound, long-term repercussions for the democratic process and for civilian authority at stake here; the situation demanded a broader parliamentary debate. And yet the government, out of sheer expediency and for the benefit of a single individual, went ahead — simply because it could.

Last week, Mr Khan remarked during an interview that he had decided to give Gen Bajwa an extension just a few days after assuming office. Even for a dispensation that repeatedly boasts of being ‘on the same page’ as the military, the prime minister’s premature decision to grant the extension smacks of impetuosity — or worse, trying to curry favour with the army chief. Reinforcing the impression of ineptitude, it emerged during the hearing at the Supreme Court that the prime minister had moved a summary seeking approval for reappointment while the president had issued a notification for extension in tenure.

This is a landmark case: unprecedented questions are being raised, threatening to upend the accepted status quo, and holding a mirror to society’s psyche.

Consider that four army chiefs have given themselves extensions while two others were so favoured by the government of the time — but no one thought to ask whether this was legal at all.

The court has also rightly noted that the regional security situation — the official reason given for the extension — is for the army to handle as an institution, rather than being an individual’s job. Surely there are other officers more than capable of leading the army. Gen Bajwa’s next step will determine whether he is thinking of himself or his institution.

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2019