The controversy over the appointment of the new ISI chief has been in the headlines in recent weeks. It is said that PM Imran Khan wanted to continue with Lt Gen Faiz Hameed as ISI chief for some time but COAs Gen Bajwa transferred him as Corps Commander of Peshawar. A new ISI chief was also named but the prime minister’s office delayed its notification.
According to media reports, Imran Khan had told COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa that he wanted Lt Gen Hameed to continue as ISI director general for some time due to the critical situation in neighbouring Afghanistan. But the COAS took a decision that he thought was in the best interest of the army.
It is debatable whether the difference arising between the two was procedural or substantive. For, PM Imran Khan and Gen Bajwa have been on the best of terms and the matter of replacement of the ISI DG could have been easily sorted out in personal meetings. But it seems that something went awry somewhere, giving rise to misunderstanding between the two sides.
All kinds of rumours and speculative stories have been making the rounds and different quarters have interpreted the episode from their own narrow angle. Some people have commented that the honeymoon between the security establishment and the PTI is over and now Imran Khan, deprived of support from the army, has become weak politically. Other analysts have said that the end of the “hybrid” rule will lead to political instability in the country and the imbalance of power between the security establishment and the civilian leadership could lead to a breakdown of the current political set-up.
The development has come as a welcome opportunity to the opposition which has launched a new campaign to challenge the government of PM Imran Khan and bring it down, if possible.
Civil-military relations in Pakistan have remained a ticklish issue throughout. They have passed through different phases and many ups and downs. Political parties have generally been wary and resentful of the army’s influence in national affairs. But paradoxically, on many occasions in the past they have given a call to the army to intervene to sort out political disputes. It is a matter of record that when a government has been sent packing by the establishment for whatever reason, the party in opposition celebrates and observes a day of deliverance. During the nineties this happened three times.
The fact of the matter is that it is the fragility of the political system that allows more space to the army. Moreover, while the military is a well-organized, disciplined and efficient force, political parties are a chaotic lot headed by incompetent and corrupt leaders. That is why the establishment throughout has kept certain important policy areas under its own domain, especially national security issues, relations with India and the US.
The present political set-up is generally described as a hybrid system run collaboratively by the PTI and the military which are said to be on the same page on issues of national and international concern. This has been in sharp contrast with the three tenures of Nawaz Sharif during which civil-military relations came under severe strain.
The present political arrangement has worked smoothly over the past three years but some cracks seem to have appeared in recent weeks. One reading of the situation is that the issue arose when the prime minister asserted his authority in the matter of appointment of the new DG ISI. His reported insistence on retaining the outgoing spymaster for some time raised questions about possible political motives. The military leadership reacted by notifying the appointment of the new ISI chief, apparently without the prime minister’s approval and in violation of the rules, leading to a standoff.
According to some observers, there are some other Issues underlying the growing gap between Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership. In their view, the two sides are not on the same page in the handling of vital foreign and security matters. For example, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan has become a contentious issue because the prime minister stands for an early reconciliation with the outlawed militant group, while the army has its reservations.
It is reported that there is a strong group in the PTI which advocates that the party should distance itself from the army in order to solidify its democratic credentials in the public eye. But given its thin majority in parliament, it is not possible for the PTI to take an independent line and alienate the establishment, especially as the opposition parties are in an aggressive mood and constantly attacking the government on the issues of rising prices and bad governance.
The opposition is particularly unhappy with Imran Khan because the government is relentlessly pursuing corruption cases against some of its stalwarts, including Asif Zardari and Shehbaz Sharif. In retaliation, the opposition has taken to the streets and held a series of public meetings and demonstrations to mobilise the people against the government.
According to political observers, Imran Khan’s refusal to engage with the opposition on important constitutional matters and to develop a national consensus on vital foreign and security policies has given greater space to the security establishment as an arbiter of power. A divided opposition, which has so far failed to dislodge the government, sees a new opportunity in the tension that has developed between Imran Khan and the establishment and it will go all out to exploit it to its advantage.