Chief concern

Published September 6, 2022

WITH characteristic lack of tact, former prime minister Imran Khan has pushed the looming appointment of the next army chief to front and centre of the national political discourse.

In a Sunday speech to a large crowd in Faisalabad, the former prime minister alleged that PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif and PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari were holding off on announcing elections just so they could appoint an army chief “of their own choice” — a chief, Mr Khan claimed, who is likely to go easy on them over their alleged corruption.

Since Mr Khan holds considerable political sway at the moment, his remarks are expected to invite feverish scrutiny of the new army chief’s appointment as the incumbent’s retirement draws nearer.

The accusation is a potent one, as it is, like most effective propaganda, based on a half-truth: past prime ministers have indeed sought something more than just seniority or merit among the candidates vying for this incredibly powerful post. However, those ‘considerations’ have rarely yielded the desired results.

The full truth is that an army chief, once appointed, becomes his own man as the immense power vested in their office begins to grow on them. The institution of the military is also such that it binds the army chief in many ways. Therefore, it is little surprise that no army chief has ever delivered on the many hopes and expectations pinned on them by their civilian appointers.

Mr Khan once gave Gen Bajwa an extension, likely hoping they would continue on the same page. It was not to be. Mr Sharif, on the other hand, has proved a veteran in making appointments that come back to haunt him.

Mr Khan’s remarks are provocative because they go to the heart of the military’s entanglement with politics. The outrage of his opponents makes this even clearer.

Read: Who will be the next army chief?

Instead of addressing the core issue and promising transparency, both the PPP and the PML-N have seized on the opportunity to paint Mr Khan as a ‘traitor’ and reassert themselves as lord protectors of the army’s good name.

Separately, the ISPR has roundly denounced the statement as “defamatory” and “scandalising”.

The public pressure will nonetheless continue to build as the army chief’s retirement draws near. Control over the next appointment is widely considered one of the reasons why Mr Khan was prematurely ousted from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The PDM had alleged in the past that Mr Khan had planned to perpetuate his rule with the help of a “friendly” chief, and that they could not allow it to happen. Many are now waiting to see who gets handed the baton of command and will demand to know why.

Having forcibly been denied the privilege, Mr Khan can be expected to rage from the sidelines till the end. One cannot envy the man who takes power in such circumstances.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2022

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