Michael Kugelman: ‘Imran has divided the Pakistan army’


‘Many senior officers are unhappy with him, but many lower level officers are still supportive.’
‘This is also not something that has happened for a long time. So this is certainly a milestone.’

IMAGE: Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan.

“Imran Khan is keen to patch up ties with the army because he knows that with the army behind him once again, he’ll face fewer potential obstacles to returning to power,” says Dr Michael Kugelman, South Asian Institute Director at the Wilson Centre, the Washington, DC-based think-tank.

“Khan’s main gripe was with General Bajwa, who has now left the scene. There is an opportunity to turn the page, bury the hatchet, and try to pursue a workable relationship with the new chief, despite baggage from the past,” Dr Kugelman tells Rediff.com‘s Archana Masih in the concluding part of an e-mail interview discussing the goals before Pakistan’s new army chief General Syed Asim Munir and a resurgent Imran Khan.

 

Since the army plays a prominent role in the running of Pakistan’s fragile democracy, can the new chief repair relations between the government and former PM Imran Khan who has accused the army of plotting his assassination and ouster of his government?

This will be one of the big questions during the initial weeks of Munir’s term.

Munir faces a conundrum. There are indications that he does not want to be seen as a political army chief, and his predecessor has insisted that the army will no longer interfere in politics. But there will be high expectations across the political class that the army chief will help defuse tensions between the government and Khan.

After all, army chiefs have played such a facilitating role during political crises in the past.

Further complicating the conundrum is that Munir and Khan have had differences in the past, when Munir was fired as ISI chief when Khan was premier.

The democratic path would be for Munir to stay out of the political crisis, and for the politicians to work things out themselves. But I wouldn’t bet on that happening.

Munir’s goal will be more political stability. If he concludes that getting more political stability requires him to use his good offices to try to defuse tensions between the government and Khan, then he will likely opt to play that role.

The current state of play has made things easier for Munir, sort of. Khan’s decision not to take his long march into Islamabad and instead to pledge to have PTI legislators resign from the provincial assemblies is a deescalatory step, in part.

It would be easier for Munir to try to defuse tensions produced by legislators’ threats to resign from the assemblies than by thousands of angry Khan supporters camped out on the streets of Islamabad.

IMAGE: General Syed Asim Munir, Pakistan’s new chief of army staff, meets Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif at the prime minister’s house in Islamabad, November 24, 2022. Press Information Department/Handout via Reuters

Pakistan has not seen such popular support for a political leader like what it is for Imran Khan, someone who came to power with the army’s assistance in 2018 and subsequently fell afoul with the military.
How is the Pakistan army going to face the challenge thrown by Imran Khan’s popularity and his long march?

Khan’s popular support, which is tied to his hallmark populism — his ability to successfully channel public grievances — is remarkable. Perhaps not since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto have we seen anything like this.

The other challenge for the army is that, while Khan lost the support of many key senior military leaders (and the early retirement of Faiz Hameed, one of the few very senior army leaders that still supports Khan, hurts Khan even more), there is still strong pro-Khan sentiment within the lower ranks of the institution.

In a sense, Khan has managed to divide the military in its views of him.

The army could well take a hard line and try to remove Khan from the electoral and political scene by pushing the State to get Khan disqualified by the courts, and other legal measures. But such moves could backfire and cause a large and potentially violent backlash from Khan’s supporters, which would worsen the very stability the army seeks to reduce.

The army, however, does enjoy an advantage: Khan wants to return to power, and he knows that to do so it will help to have more support within the army.

Tellingly, Khan’s anti-military rhetoric has been less sharp and specific of late. His decision to end his long march can also be seen as a conciliatory gesture to the military.

So the army has some leverage, in this regard.

IMAGE: Imran Khan addresses his supporters at a rally in Sialkot.

Is this challenge posed by Imran an important milestone in Pakistan politics? Will the military try and cut him to size?

The anti-military rhetoric from Khan and his large and growing support base since his ouster has put the army on the defensive in a big way, and delivered more hits to its popularity than it has suffered for quite some time.

He has also divided the military, with many senior officers unhappy with him, but many lower level officers still supportive. This is also not something that has happened for a long time. So this is certainly a milestone.

Critical masses of Pakistanis are publicly lambasting the military, especially on social media, and calling for it to stay out of politics.

On some levels, given Khan’s large support base, criticism of the military has gone mainstream — which is exceedingly rare.

But as I said earlier, Khan is keen to patch up ties with the army, because he knows that with the army behind him once again, he’ll face fewer potential obstacles to returning to power.

Also, Khan’s main gripe was with General Bajwa, who has now left the scene. There is an opportunity to turn the page, bury the hatchet, and try to pursue a workable relationship with the new chief, despite baggage from the past.

IMAGE: General Munir takes command as Pakistan’s chief of army staff from General Qamar Javed Bajwa, November 29, 2022.

General Bajwa in his final address spoke of the military’s interference in politics for the last seven decades and said it would ‘never again interfere in any political matter in the future’.
Given the fact that the country has seen 4 military coups and has been involved in the fall of elected governments, is it even remotely possible that the Pakistan army will not meddle in politics?

To me, this is very simple: The army has been too deeply embedded in Pakistan’s political fabric for too long to suddenly and magically stop its interference.

Perhaps the army, recognising its need to restore public trust in the institution, would see the value in stepping back a bit. But this wouldn’t be a total extrication from politics.

What I could envision is the army returning to the role it played pre-Bajwa: One in which it had its traditional policy portfolios (defence, security, foreign policy), but not the economic and other domestic areas it was inhabiting during the Bajwa era.

In effect, I could envision a return to the status quo ante, before the emergence of the ‘hybrid regime’ and the Bajwa Doctrine.

Another reason why I imagine Bajwa’s pledge of no more interference will go unfulfilled is that there will be high and immediate expectations that Munir will help mediate the current political crisis, given its scale and longevity.

Perhaps there would be more potential for a dramatic army policy shift, that is, to end its interference, if there weren’t such a compelling need right now — in the eyes of much of the political class — for Munir to, well, interfere.

IMAGE: General Qamar Javed Bajwa at the Eurosatory international defence and security exhibition in Paris, June 14, 2022. Photograph: Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

What have been the strengths and weaknesses of Gen Bajwa’s six-year long tenure as chief?

It’s hard to remember, given how much harsh criticism Bajwa took over the last months of his rule, but he actually did a number of things earlier on that were widely praised in Pakistan, and beyond.

His Bajwa Doctrine and its focus on scaling up trade and connectivity with the region — his much-heralded call for a shift from ‘geopolitics to geoeconomics’ — was lauded as an admirable vision, even if also criticised for being rather impractical.

Similarly, Pakistan’s measured response to the errant Indian missile that flew into Pakistan garnered praise for averting an escalation that could have led to a war, and one can imagine that such a response was authored by Bajwa.

The new border truce signed with India last year can be seen in a similar light. There were also successful efforts to help bring the Taliban to the table to negotiate with the US.

Bajwa has also been credited with some successful military modernisation efforts.

The negative impact of his legacy is rooted in his decision to exert more influence on policy, beyond the usual security/defence/foreign policy realms.

The ‘hybrid regime’ worked well initially, with the army and Khan, along with ISI chief Hameed once he was in power, all on the same page and happily sharing power.

But when Bajwa and Khan started clashing, and Bajwa turned on his long term ally, everything came crashing down.

The decision to back the opposition effort to do the no confidence vote appears in retrospect to be a terrible decision, given that it brought to power a weak and indecisive government helpless to address a worsening economic crisis and resurgent terror threats — and Khan, once again revelling in his role as an opposition agitator, was happy to take advantage and launch a new anti-government campaign that plunged the country into a deep political crisis.

The new government’s retributive politics — perhaps aided or even orchestrated by Bajwa — led to harassment, threats, and arrests of Khan’s allies that only made Khan stronger and his support base more angry at the new administration, and at the army chief who had become its backer.

Ultimately, Bajwa fit a pattern that has played out with many army chiefs over Pakistan’s recent history. He started out fairly popular, and only saw his legacy take a dark turn during his final months in office.

The one recent exception to this rule is his immediate predecessor, Raheel Sharif, who left office wildly popular. And unlike Bajwa and many of the other chiefs that went out less popular then they went in, Sharif never received an extension.

And that says something about the questionable utility of extensions for army chiefs — not to mention about the implications they have for democracy in a country where the military’s shadow always looms large.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com



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