LONDON: A retired general on Saturday discarded the former army chief’s pledge that the military would remain out of Pakistani politics, saying he did not attach any importance to what an outgoing chief said.

“Why did [Imran Khan] give an extension to Gen Bajwa? Why did Asif Ali Zardari give an extension to [Gen] Kiyani? I believe that the military should stay neutral and not meddle in politics, but remember that you cannot switch it off,” retired Gen Haroon Aslam said.

Addressing the audience during a session on ‘Civil Military Relations: Co-existence or Confron­ta­tion’ at the Future of Pakistan Conference 2023 — hosted by the student union of the London School of Economics — he also blamed Pakistan’s political leadership for allowing the military to meddle in politics, saying that while the military was not proactively trying to interfere, it was the “civilian component” that gave importance to the military.

When asked about the long-term applicability of retired Gen Bajwa’s farewell pledge of neutrality from the army, Gen Aslam did not mince his words. “I don’t attach any credence to that. He played his innings, then at the end said this. There is no importance of what an outgoing chief says.”

Gen Aslam was the senior-most at the time of former army chief Gen Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani’s retirement. Before that, he remained DG military operations and Bahawalpur corps commander.

At the outset of the session, he raised eyebrows by professing that he had voted for PTI Chairman Imran Khan in the last election, and would do so again.

But in the same breath, he also criticised Mr Khan, as well as other civilian leaders, for contributing to the civil-military imbalance.

“If you encourage good civilian leadership, then the military will recoil,” he said, adding that “we have to go by the will of the people”.

“The [civilian] component gives importance to the military and the relationship between the two is a triangle of love, hate and expediency. If we have a score against India, everyone loves the army. But if there is intervention, everyone hates the army. It is not the military that is proactive in trying [to interfere], it is a collective thing.”

It was Woodrow Wilson Centre scholar Michael Kugelman who came to the defence of the civilian leadership. “All roads to Islamabad lead through Pindi. A neutral army is only possible if politicians decide they don’t need to work with the military. But unfortunately, politicians often don’t have a choice. There is a desire to ensure relations between them and the military are good.”

He said he did not agree with the argument that civilian leaders are corrupt and ineffective, adding that such ideas are harboured by the military. Mr Kugelman said both civilian and military leaderships deserve blame for where Pakistan is economically, and that structural problems in the economy as well as shocks of the Ukraine war have exacerbated the problem.

On the question of who is to blame for the Pakistan’s current crisis, which moderator Dr Farzana Shaikh described as a “confluence of an economic, security and political crisis”, Mr Kugelman said: “It is common to point to the economic stability in military regimes with nostalgia, but it is important to remember how critics and dissenters suffered during military rule.”

The military, he recalled, gets a major chunk of the budget even in times of economic distress.

At this, Gen Aslam said that he did not support military takeovers, but opposed singling out the military for the current crisis. “It is a collective responsibility and a collective failure. There is a gross misunderstanding about the defence budget. It does not eat up the budget without rhyme or reason.”

Ironically, the composition of the panel itself was imbalanced, as there was no representation for current or former members of government. Chatham House Fellow Dr Shaikh noted this, but one of the organisers explained that the absence of civilian representation was due to politicians being caught up in the upcoming elections.

‘Myth of conspiracy’

Later, at a session titled ‘Sustainable Growth and Sovereign Debt’, former State Bank of Pakistan governor Dr Reza Baqir busted myths that are used to justify Pakistan’s economic and growth challenges.

“There is a myth that there is some kind of conspiracy against Pakistan, that various dark forces have come together to orchestrate a plan that does not let us grow in a sustainable manner,” Dr Baqir said.

“We also like to blame international institutions and the poster child for the blame game is the IMF. The third myth is that Pakistan’s problems are unique. The truth is that the solutions aren’t rocket science.”

Dr Baqir spoke of the downside of excessive central bank borrowing and the proclivity of finance ministers to fix exchange rates and how detrimental this can be.

The last session featured an enlightening conversation with Pakistan’s first female Supreme Court judge, Justice Ayesha A. Malik, who spoke about anti-women narratives in the judiciary and courtrooms, and the importance of the gender perspective.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 5th, 2023

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