Under Chief of Army Staff General Bajwa, Pakistan’s civil-military balance firmly tilted toward the latter yet again.
Pakistan’s chief of army staff (COAS), General Qamar Javed Bajwa, recently marked two years in the all-powerful position. At his appointment, Bajwa was dubbed as pro-democracy and holding a “relatively more moderate view of the relationship with the civilian government” among a military known for its pathologic disdain of all things civilian. Since assuming his post, however, he has effectively upended any democratic gains that Pakistan had made following the ouster of its last formal military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, in 2008.
The Pakistan army is an institutional monolith – its apples don’t fall far. Bajwa has been no exception. The Pakistani COAS has led a creeping coup d’état started by his predecessor, General Raheel Sharif, to its culmination. The 57-year-old infantryman has virtually reclaimed all the ground lost to civilian political forces over the past decade. In Bajwa’s tenure, Pakistan’s civil-military balance – perennially lopsided in favor of the army – was firmly tilted toward the latter yet again.
While the Pakistan army has attempted to trip democracy every step of the way since its restoration in 2008, this effort took on a particular urgency under COAS Sharif. Raheel Sharif’s director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate tried to bring down the three-time elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (no relation) through an orchestrated street protest by the army’s political proxies. Then the army under Bajwa resorted to full-blown political and judicial engineering to oust Nawaz Sharif and keep him out of the political arena for good.
The army’s beef with then-Prime Minister Sharif was manifold. He was perhaps the only towering politician who seriously tried to assert civilian supremacy over the military. The picture of Sharif’s first meeting with Bajwa – the newly-minted COAS at the time – in 2016 spoke a thousand words: Sharif sat the army chief across from his large office desk to convey that he intended to be the boss. The army’s brass, the rank and file, and its gossip-mongering retired officers took umbrage at the seating arrangement and the released photograph.
The optics, though, were not the only thing that triggered the army’s ire against its once blue-eyed boy. The army was miffed with Nawaz Sharif for pursuing a treason case against former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, for his launching of a coup against Sharif in 1999. While the legal proceedings were initiated before Sharif took the helm, he chose to let the wheels of justice grind on, much to the army’s chagrin. Sharif also attempted to assert himself in matters of foreign policy vis-à-vis India by flying to New Delhi to attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration in 2014. The next year, Sharif received Modi at his suburban Lahore ranch, as the Indian leader made his way back home from Afghanistan.
Even when Sharif conceded the army’s demands, like having military courts, the brass remained irate. The army’s institutional disdain for politicians is not specific to Sharif. It has locked horns with virtually every prime minister the country has had, including its handpicked cronies who served during assorted dictatorships. Not a single prime minister in the country’s history has actually completed a full term, due to either direct or indirect dismissal by the military. The tiff with Sharif, however, took on a virulent urgency due to his insistence on letting the law take its course in Musharraf’s case. For Sharif, bringing some semblance of parity in the civil-military relations was a legacy issue, something that he perhaps wished to be remembered for. The disgruntlement, therefore, continued even after the army helped Musharraf, according to his own account, flee Pakistan.
The army tried to undermine Sharif through a series of sit-in protests by its quisling Imran Khan – a playboy cricketer-turned-politician, and now the country’s prime minister – a couple of times. It succeeded only in weakening Sharif but not dislodging him. The so-called Panama Papers leak, which showed that Sharif’s children held offshore properties – but proved no impropriety – gave the army an unexpected break to go after him. A series of legal proceedings were orchestrated against Sharif, wherein the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) – an appeals court – turned itself into a trial court, thus denying Sharif the due process enshrined in the constitution. The SCP-appointed investigations team included a serving brigadier, Kamran Khurshid of Military Intelligence (MI), and a retired brigadier, Nauman Saeed of the ISI. The judicial deck was thus stacked against Sharif.
In July 2017, the SCP declared Sharif disqualified from holding public office, accusing him of being dishonest in his 2013 nomination papers about his employment and sources of wealth but not providing much support for the broader corruption allegation. Nevertheless, Sharif resigned.
What the army could not achieve through behind-the-scenes coercion and overtly manipulated political contests and protests was delivered through the SCP. General Bajwa’s army had scored the single biggest triumph of his tenure. After the sad demise of Benazir Bhutto in a terrorist attack, Sharif had been the only politician of national stature striving to bring the army behemoth under civilian control. The media went into overdrive castigating Sharif for a crime that even the highest court of the land had not proven against him. The time-tested mantra that civilians are corrupt was peddled ad nauseum.
While Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), continued to rule for the remainder of his term, the army under Bajwa plotted for the next electoral contest. Days before the July 2018 elections, a kangaroo court sent Sharif to prison on a flimsy charge of not declaring a paltry amount that he was due to receive from his son’s company but actually did not take. The security agencies then blatantly coerced Sharif’s partisans to switch sides. The election was one of the most tainted in Pakistan’s history, marred by widespread charges of both pre-poll and an election-day rigging carried out by the army on behalf of its protégé Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. In fact, even before the complete election results came in, the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR), Major General Asif Ghafoor, tweeted a Quranic verse from his verified personal account, implicitly gloating over Khan’s victory and Sharif’s defeat. While Sharif’s electoral loss was a huge tactical gain for Bajwa, it also has strategic implications for both domestic and foreign affairs of the country.
Internally, Bajwa’s biggest legacy perhaps would be muzzling traditional media and attempts to gag even social media. While coercive tactics against dissident voices were used during General Raheel Sharif’s tenure, they became the norm under Bajwa’s command. Bajwa’s DG ISPR has acted, for all practical purposes, as an enforcer that sends private messages to intellectuals, columnists, and social media users expressing displeasure over their writings or posts. Major media houses like the Jang/Geo and Dawn groups were harangued, columnists threatened and abducted, and a disparate group of social media bloggers were forcibly disappeared. The bloggers were also smeared with blasphemy allegations, which could mean a death sentence in a country where vigilantes have killed ministers, judges, and governors for alleged sacrilege.
The army denied involvement, but all fingers pointed toward its intelligence and media wings for cracking down on anyone and everyone who opposed the army’s political engineering project. Columnist after columnist declared on social media that their respective publication had dropped their regular columns – some permanently – under duress from the army. On the other hand, the pro-army media, especially television channels, were given a free hand to paint politicians like Sharif and his partisans as corrupt and even anti-Pakistan. Seasoned journalists felt compelled to lament that in a sham democracy under Bajwa’s tutelage, the media censorship is worse than it had been under formal dictatorships.
Curiously, in early 2018 Bajwa assembled a large group of prominent media persons for an off-the-record conversation after which several reported his views, with full attribution, dubbing them as the “Bajwa Doctrine.” In that talk the COAS castigated the landmark 18th constitutional amendment – a law approved by two-thirds majority of the parliament that empowered the federating provinces – as “more dangerous” than the late Bengali leader Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman’s Six Points, which were a proposed provincial autonomy framework for the erstwhile East Pakistan but were deemed treasonous by the army. Bajwa pledged support for democracy while also pledging to back the SCP, which had taken a sledgehammer to the politicians running the democratic dispensation at the time. Bajwa is said to have disparaged the financial planning and practice of Nawaz Sharif’s government. The COAS emphasized the army’s domestic focus on eradicating terrorism from Pakistan. He reportedly said that Pakistan’s army has no designs to pursue so-called strategic depth in Afghanistan and it realizes that war with India is not an option. Interestingly, almost none of the reports of the meeting, especially those highlighting Bajwa’s indignation at the 18th amendment, were refuted by the army.
At this meeting, which took place three months before the general elections, Bajwa essentially laid out his roadmap for the polls and the government thus installed. What the COAS’ words and work have made abundantly clear is that his roadmap is no different than any of the army chiefs before him. Even his spiel to the media is rehashed from previous chiefs, from Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracy model to Musharraf’s seven points. They all had a similar laundry list of things they wanted done in Pakistan.
The Bajwa years again drive home the point that the institutional thought process of the Pakistan army vis-à-vis politics and democracy has not changed since its first takeover 60 years ago. When General Yahya Khan replaced General Ayub Khan, The Economist irreverently titled its March 29, 1969 editorial “Tweedle Khan takes over.” The process has since been repeated religiously. While the army’s recruitment base has widened over the years, its psyche and psychology remains supremely monolithic.
Contrary to common perception, it is not the personality of an army chief that is a catalyst for a coup. It is, in fact, an institutional decision made by the army, which remains a highly disciplined and cohesive outfit. The army decides when to formally dislodge civilian governments and when to oust them through assorted machinations and rule from behind the scenes. For example, when the Pakistan army launched the 1999 coup d’état, General Musharraf was flying back from Sri Lanka. The putsch was carried out by the generals on the ground in Karachi and Islamabad.
The army, as an institution, is driven by ideological and corporate goals. Pay, plots, pensions, and, above all, political power guide its policy and practice. While the army is its chief and the chief is the army, it is the ideology, indoctrination, and integration of self-preservation – in a pre-eminent position – that drive institutional decision-making.
Throughout Pakistan’s existence, the army has declared four periods of martial law and ruled without a formal coup for the rest, ostensibly for altruistic and nationalist reasons but truly for very self-serving goals. In the periods between martial law, the army assumed a vintage praetorian tutelary role, the intensity of which has differed from chief to chief, but the purpose has remained the same: To maintain a chokehold over the state and its institutions. Bajwa’s tenure has been no different.
An overt coup d’état is a factor of assorted variables, including the prevailing political environment and good will for the army. Economic or regional and international factors have never induced a coup in Pakistan’s history. The single most important precipitant for a coup has invariably been the failure of the army’s political engineering attempts, such as in 1977 and 1999. On the other hand, whenever the army could manipulate political players successfully and get legitimacy for the process through the ever-obliging superior judiciary or a pliant or coerced parliament, it does not opt for direct rule. This is what has happened in the Bajwa years.
The army has consolidated its self-anointed position as the arbiter of national interest and pushed challengers to this ideological posture by adopting the facade of patriotism. The control over mass media and educational curricula for decades has afforded the army a country-wide ideological culture that condones, if not collaborates, with its political adventurism within and jingoistic posture without.
The Pakistan army under Bajwa has pursued an aggressive policy domestically and has effectively emasculated the country’s already feeble democracy. The army’s general objective since 1958 has been to have a controlled democracy and with the 2018 election, that project has come to fruition. While the army has gone after so-called bad jihadis (i.e. those that had been targeting the Pakistani state), it continues to preserve and promote “good jihadis” (i.e. those that target Afghanistan and India). World powers, such as the United States, while able to read the Pakistan army’s duplicitous practices, have lacked the will to counter them decisively. Under Bajwa, the Pakistan army has been successful in maintaining the regional status quo. It is safe to stay that in his third year in the office, Bajwa will continue to assert the army’s position at home and try to change the regional balance, especially in Afghanistan, in favor of Pakistan’s proxies.