THE change of guard had never been so messy. What should have been a routine matter has turned into a high-stakes political game of chicken. The new army chief is expected to be named by the end of this week. But the transition may not bring an end to the controversy; the whole process has become so deeply politicised. The new chief will take charge in a highly polarised and volatile political atmosphere.
A major challenge for the new incumbent in what is regarded as the most powerful office in the country will be to navigate through choppy waters. It is not just a matter related to the role of the security establishment in the ongoing political power game but also a question of how to restore public confidence in the institution.
The loss of credibility has fuelled unprecedented public criticism of the military leadership, a factor that has made the appointment of the new army chief controversial. Its deep involvement in political affairs have raised questions about the military’s professionalism and obscured its main responsibility of ensuring the security of the nation. Unsurprisingly, the belated claim of ‘neutrality’ has few takers.
From the very outset, the security establishment has dominated political power — directly or indirectly — in the country. Long periods of authoritarian military rule have alternated with short and ineffective civilian dispensations. The military’s political role has also undermined civilian institutions and the growth of democratic political culture in the country.
It will be challenging for the new command to deal with the multiple problems faced by the military.
As a result, the country’s basic power structure has not changed over the last 75 years. Most political parties serve dynastic family interests and thus easily become pawns in the perpetuation of the security establishment’s political control. Elected civilian governments have been ousted through extra-constitutional means or political manipulation. Nurtured in the military’s hatchery, political leaders could be easily dispensed with once they got out of control.
Therefore, it has not been surprising that few civilian governments have been able to complete their terms. The replacement has been easily available. The game of political musical chairs has gone on ensuring the predominance of the security establishment. The rise to power of Imran Khan was also a manifestation of the same game. The former cricket hero-turned-politician was the new kid on the block.
It was an institutional decision to facilitate his climb to power. It is no more a secret that the establishment played an active role in creating an alliance that allowed the PTI to form the government at the centre and in Punjab in 2018.
It was the first experience with hybrid rule, with the military pulling the strings. A fledgling coalition could only survive because of the establishment’s backing. According to a top security official, Imran Khan became completely dependent on the security apparatus to deliver on everything. The establishment’s imprint was obvious in every field. It is also evident that pliant sections were created in the media to promote hybrid rule and counter political opposition.
But the dichotomy of power has inherent complexities. It may have been in the interest of the two partners to stay together but strains emerged in the hybrid arrangement, with growing differences over certain domestic and foreign policy issues. It all came to a breaking point when Imran Khan crossed the red line in the change of the ISI chief. The protégé’s time was up. He had become a liability. A new game of musical chairs began. Old foes became the new allies.
However, the game has not gone as planned. The claim of neutrality has remained doubtful. Khan turned the tables on his erstwhile patrons with a ferocity not seen before. His populist appeal has changed the rules of the game. His relentless campaign has put the establishment on the back foot. The upcoming change of command has restricted the establishment’s options, to the advantage of the ousted leader.
As a part of his strategy Khan has targeted some senior army officers, while sparing others. He has deliberately made the issue of appointment of the new army chief controversial to put the incoming military leadership under pressure. His main objective is to win back the support of the establishment to return to power. But his calculations could turn out wrong as his hubris grows.
By naming a senior intelligence officer in the case of a gun attack on him, he has brought his confrontation with the generals to a head. His game may be over after the process of transition of the army command is completed. But it may also not be easy for the establishment to contain him, notwithstanding the army’s claim of neutrality. The incumbent civilian rulers seem too weak to counter the PTI’s onslaught and restore political stability.
It will be extremely challenging for the new army command to deal with the multiple problems faced by the institution. It is not just the future political role of the security establishment but also the latter’s credibility that is at stake. Questions regarding the perks and powers of the generals have hurt the public image of the security institution. Nothing could be more unfortunate than perceptions of financial impropriety at the top.
Moreover, the alleged involvement of the establishment in real estate business is perceived to have greatly affected the institution’s responsibilities of national security. These growing business and commercial interests are not only seen to undermine professionalism but the concessions obtained by these ventures are also casting a long shadow over civil-military relations in the country.
It is the moment of truth for the incoming army leadership that is to take charge at this very critical juncture in the country’s trajectory. It may not be easy to move away from this damning legacy.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2022