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Saturday, December 10, 2022

Is Pakistan’s Elected Government Facing a Threat? Grapevines in Overdrive

Many believe the country has entered a new round of civil-military tensions because of intense speculations that Prime Minister Imran Khan may be removed by the powerful military through political engineering. The military has so far stayed silent as sections of the media speculate that one of the reasons for discord is the Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa's desire to get a new extension as COAS.

By Special Report

(Photo courtesy U.S. Institute of Peace, CC license)

The dye is cast. The quest for “real authority” over Pakistan is gradually unfolding. Prime Minister Imran Khan wants to establish civilian supremacy. But the powerful men in Rawalpindi may not be on the same page with him. Grapevines have been making the rounds that the GHQ is loath to the idea of losing real control over Pakistan.

The incumbent army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa is reportedly eagerly vying for yet another extension as COAS. This is what has been conveyed indirectly to the top quarters in Islamabad. The reported ask – another extension in the office. Reflecting the true toxic Pakistani political culture, not much is known as to why such reports are in circulation and why General Bajwa wants the extension. And if these reports are mere speculation, then why ISPR (the communications wing of the military) is maintaining a mum and is not denying them. And if another extension is on the General’s bucket list, then Why? “Has the military-run out of capable leaders or the current COAS is indispensable,” asks a journalist, based in Islamabad, requesting anonymity.

Many analysts in Pakistan believe that General Bajwa may be thinking that the army is the real savior and the best interlocutor with the Americans on issues such as India and Afghanistan. Some analysts note with interest General Bajwa’s diplomacy as well.

One analyst, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said independent observers have been trying to understand the reason behind the army chief’s meetings with the diplomats of Western countries in recent weeks. “While occasional meetings are understandable but what is beyond understanding is why an army chief will choose to discuss bilateral relations with ambassadors of foreign countries so frequently,” said the analyst. The established diplomatic norm is that such meetings are handled by the foreign office. But in this case, many questions remain unanswered.

“Prime Minister Khan, we hear, is disinclined to provide yet another extension to Bajwa, who apparently wants to phase General Faiz Hameed, former ISI chief, out of the military before bowing himself out. Hameed had literally become a persona non grata for the GHQ when Khan insisted to retain him as ISI chief,” knowledgeable sources in Islamabad claimed.

The sources added that General Bajwa and other corps commanders disliked Faiz getting too close to the prime minister. “What is in store as we move into 2022 and the count-down is on for the expiration of Bajwa’s term,” asked one source.

These sources and political observers are linking the newfound confidence and louder noises by the opposition against the government to the possible fall of Imran Khan. They add that more “orchestrated” pressure is expected from the religious right on Khan’s government as lots of people are also smelling rats in the unusual resurgence of Jamiat Ulema e Islam and the Jamaat e Islami in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa local government elections.

“The reports of military’s contacts with London-based former prime minister Nawaz Sharif for his return may now make more sense,” says one source in London. Sharif was convicted in a corruption case on July 6, 2018, and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. He was later flown to London for treatment of health complications, reportedly with the military’s blessings.

“So sit tight for the intense battle that is likely to grow ferocious with each day. The monolithic military establishment will continue to look at itself as the savior and guardian of Pakistan,” the source added.

“Unfortunately, it fails to see that Pakistan’s current mess and the bad image is because of this tactical mindset that flows from Rawalpindi. Let’s see who blinks first in 2022,” the source added. Media commentators in Pakistan are also no longer mincing words about the emerging tensions between Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Pakistan has been in the grip of rumors about early elections for months now.  

“I cannot say when the new elections will be held but if some powerful quarters have already decided to hold new elections, then let them do it and then pay the price for it” quipped senior analyst Haroon Rasheed in his weekly TV show Muqabil on December 24. 

Pakistan’s military has often been accused of meddling in politics. The Generals have ruled the country for much of its history, staging coups, suppressing individual freedoms and the media. Pakistan’s last military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, who has escaped trial at home, has been living in self-exiled in the United Arab Emirates for the past many years.

The media is facing intense pressure these days as well. Pakistan is ranked at 145th position out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index, an annual ranking of countries published by Reporters Sans Frontiers, an international non-governmental organization dedicated to safeguarding the right to freedom of information.

Journalists in Pakistan are vocal in expressing their concerns about shrinking press freedom. But many are wary of speaking on record on matters related to the political role of the military.

“Those who speak up are paying the price. Look at Hamid Mir who has been stopped from hosting his popular political talk show Capital Talk on Geo TV for the past many months,” added the journalist who requested anonymity.

“Economically depressed and politically polarized Pakistan can ill-afford any political engineering or upheavals,” said one analyst in Islamabad, who added that he, like many other colleagues, is waiting for the military’s reaction to these rumors and speculations, which has so far maintained silence.

“It’s not just the government that may have been weakened, it’s the parliament that has been weakened,” says Hamid Mir. If any of Pakistan’s political players think that they can grab power by exploiting the current situation must remember that they will find themselves in the same situation that Imran Khan currently is in, he added. So no one will be able to benefit. Only the system will be further weakened, he said in an interview with Mashaal Radio, an organ of US government-funded Radio Freee Europe, on December 24.

This report is based on background interviews in the US, London, and Pakistan.

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