AFTER a series of missteps, assertions, denials and general confusion that extended over several months, the issue of the army chief’s tenure should, in all probability, be laid to rest today in the Senate. In fact, the National Assembly yesterday passed three bills that regulate the tenures of not only the army, but all the services’ chiefs. It is now for the upper house to pass the proposed legislation. Following the president’s assent — a mere formality — the bills will become law, as per the constitutionally mandated procedure. However, adherence to procedure is not the end-all and be-all in a democratic system. In this crucial matter, the people’s representatives have been remiss in their duty to those whose votes have put them in parliament, for they have been unforthcoming, even cagey, about the rationale behind their unquestioning support for the legislation.

For one, there is the question of timing. Why did the legislators not wait for the outcome of the judicial review requested by the government against the Supreme Court judgement pertaining to army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa’s tenure, which directed parliament to regulate the terms and conditions of the COAS’s office? What motivated the National Assembly, led by a government that obviously did not agree with the court’s logic, to rush into this exercise regardless? Furthermore, the government’s ill-fated notification in August about Gen Bajwa’s extension had given the “regional security environment” as the justification for its decision to retain him as army chief for another three years. Was that even a substantive factor in the legislators’ decision to pass the bills? We do not know, because notwithstanding a few dissenting voices, there was no debate on the issue. Instead, a discord-ridden parliament that drags its feet on important legislation when it chooses, seems to have effortlessly found itself ‘on the same page’ this time around. The opposition, which had initially objected to the “undue haste” with which the process was being conducted, meekly surrendered, taking back even the few amendments it had proposed in the bills. One of them, that the parliamentary committee on national security be assigned a role in the reappointment of the services chiefs and chairman joint chiefs of staff committee, was particularly worth considering. A more broad-based civilian input in such decisions could have prevented the impression of a prime minister acting on a whim or out of personal compulsions.

With its blunderbuss approach to the question of Gen Bajwa’s extension, which the ISPR has more than once asserted he was reluctant to accept, the PTI government dragged the military into a needless controversy. It can now heave a sigh of relief that the matter has resolved itself without a murmur of resistance in parliament. Sadly, the argument that institution-building is the best strategy for a stronger Pakistan has been indefinitely deferred.

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2020

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