New civil-military tensions in Pakistan aren't necessarily good news for India; New Delhi must be vigilant

  • Tuesday saw Pakistan's Supreme Court suspend now-army chief General Qamar Bajwa's three-year term until it can hear the case

  • This marks an historic challenge to military supremacy in Pakistan

  • Behind the courtroom drama, however, there is a larger struggle playing out

Everything had been planned with military precision, down to the last detail — bar one: Someone had forgotten that Lieutenant-General Khwaja Ziauddin would need a fourth star on his uniform when he took his place as Pakistan's next army chief. Then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, though, wasn't about to let a pip undo his plans. The prime minister's military secretary, Brigadier Javed Malik, gallantly tore a star off his own uniform, and handed it over to the newly-appointed army chief.

Late that evening, though, General Pervez Musharraf flew back to Pakistan and staged a coup. Ziauddin was relieved of his new rank at gunpoint. Malik never got his pip back. Nawaz went to prison, and then exile.

 New civil-military tensions in Pakistan arent necessarily good news for India; New Delhi must be vigilant

File image of Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. Reuters

From his hospital bed in London, the former prime minister will be watching television with some satisfaction. Tuesday's extraordinary orders by Pakistan's Supreme Court, suspending now-army chief General Qamar Bajwa's three-year term until it can hear the case, mark an historic challenge to military supremacy in Pakistan — one that could open the way for prime ministers to pin pips on whom they wish.

Behind the courtroom drama, though, there is a larger struggle playing out. Evicted from office by Bajwa, and then imprisoned, to enable the rise of Prime Minister Imran Khan's proxy-for-the-generals government, Nawaz is once again being seen as a credible partner by actors in the military opposed to Bajwa.

For India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this would seem to be good news. Nawaz was a trusted partner, committed to reining in Pakistan's jihadists. Like most things Pakistan, though, the story is likely to have a few murderous twists as it unfolds: Islamabad's cautious posture in Kashmir, and its curbs on jihadists, could all prove victims of this war for power.

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"Every drop of the blood that has flowed on our borders, and continues to flow on our borders, will be avenged," Bajwa vowed in a September 2018 speech, as Indian and Pakistani troops traded fire on the Line of Control. In private, though, Bajwa told interlocutors that his real intentions were to make sure the bloodshed stopped. In conversations with top United States and United Kingdom officials, General Bajwa promised to bring pressure to bear on the Afghan Taliban to negotiate peace in Afghanistan, and avoid crisis-inducing actions along the Line of Control.

For years earlier, the general had said the same thing — and done the opposite. Taliban fighters overran ever-greater swathes of rural Afghanistan. Inside Kashmir, levels of violence — which had fallen since the 26 November, 2008 attacks — escalated steadily through Bajwa’s time in office, as they had during that of his predecessor, General Raheel Sharif. Nawaz's efforts to shut down the jihadists irked the army, eventually precipitating a palace coup.

Ever since the India-Pakistan crisis of 2019, though, Bajwa has held back — both because of international pressure, and his own understanding that an escalation of jihadist violence in Kashmir could drag Islamabad into a conflict it cannot afford or sustain. For other generals, though, his inaction on Kashmir threatened the army's legitimacy as Pakistan’s preeminent institution.

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To understand why Bajwa acted as he did, one has to go back to 2007, when General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani took charge as army chief. Musharraf's efforts to do a peace deal on Kashmir, and his break with the wider jihadist movement, had escalated into something resembling civil war. Kayani's mandate from the generals was to rebuild the army-jihadi relationship, and buy peace.

Kayani responded by unleashing anti-India jihadist groups — leading, among other things, to the carnage of 26/11 — and stepping up support for jihadists in Afghanistan, hoping this would give the Pakistan army legitimacy among Islamists at home. In a 2010 article , former United Nations official Chris Alexander charged Kayani with "sponsoring a large-scale, covert guerrilla war through Afghan proxies".

From 2013 to 2016, the broad contours of this policy were consolidated under Raheel Sharif. Then, General Bajwa took office — and the Kayani Doctrine came under siege.

Appointed by a prime minister who wanted to capitalise on the economic opportunities presented by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as well as India's growing economy, Bajwa was picked to help Nawaz work with Modi. The generals, however, believed moving too fast on India would lead them back into the pre-2007 morass.

Following the 2016 terrorist attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, Nawaz ordered a crackdown on the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the army’s most trusted jihadist client. He paid for it with his office.

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In essence, the Pakistan Supreme Court's actions are about righting that wrong, and making sure civilian primacy in decision-making is restored. Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, has, among other things, questioned both the legal basis on which Bajwa's tenure was extended, and the legitimacy of the government's exercise of the powers it claims. "Five, six generals have granted themselves extensions," Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah tartly said, "We will look at this matter closely."

Understanding Bajwa's fate and his own are entwined, Khan has moved to strengthen the dubious legal basis of Bajwa's extension — and his law minister, Farogh Naseem, has resigned to fight the army chief's case in court.

From history, we know this: Nawaz's efforts to control the army all ended badly. General Wahid Kakkar, appointed in 1993 bypassing Lieutenants-General Rehm-Dil Bhatti, Mohammad Ashraf, Farrakh Khan and Arif Bangash, forced his resignation from office. Then, in 1998, Nawaz sacked General Jehangir Karamat for demanding a say in civilian issues.

Finally, Nawaz superceded Lieutenants-General Ali Kuli Khan and Khalid Nawaz Khan for Musharraf, and Lieutenant-General Zubair Mehmood Hayat for Bajwa: Both his picks sent him to prison.

Behind these quiet coups is one fundamental reality: In Pakistan, the army rules. Following Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq's assassination in 1988, Pakistan developed what the scholar Hussain Haqqani described as "military rule by other means". This, the scholar Hasan-Askari Rizvi has explained, means the army chief is the pivot of the political system, deriving his authority from the corps commanders.

File image of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. AP

File image of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. AP

Nawaz's eviction, though, has left the Khan-Bajwa regime facing the same dilemmas as the prime minister they evicted. Instead of escalating in the face of India's increasingly hardline posture in Kashmir, Bajwa has shown restraint, arguing a state of crisis with India would impose asymmetric costs on investment-starved Pakistan. In addition, his supporters note, terrorism-related sanctions by the multinational Financial Action Task Force would cripple the economy

Bajwa's critics, though, argue this isn’t enough reason to keep Kashmir quiet — and thus risk the army’s own significance and prestige. They note that Pakistan has faced western sanctions before — in 1965, 1971,1977,1979, 1990, 1998 and 1999 — only to be rescued by circumstance, like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or the stark fact that no-one is willing to allow a nuclear-weapons State to go under.

The critics have the backing of other powerful interests the Khan-Bajwa order has alienated: A slowing economy and high taxes have angered businesses; Punjab's traditional political order has frayed; Islamists who had earned Nawaz's wrath haven’t found the space they sought.

Irrespective of the outcome of the Supreme Court case, these multiple tensions are now out in the open — and won’t go away. Both sides are likely to seek the support of a wide range of elements to further their cause. Bajwa has already been assailed by the religious Right for being a closet member of the heterodox Ahmadiyya sect; the PML-N, for its part, has been reaching out both to the religious Right and Beijing for support.

Long before his extension, Bajwa had been preparing for exactly this kind of crisis, sidelining officers perceived as close to Raheel Sharif, and appointing Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed, famed for his political manipulation skills, as Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence. Hameed is tipped to succeed Bajwa at the end of his extension — should a pliable prime minister be in office.

There’s no way of telling, of course, how the power struggle will play out. But an escalation of tensions along the Line of Control, and inside Kashmir, are probable outcomes — outcomes with potentially grave consequences for India.

New Delhi ought be watching.

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Updated Date: Nov 27, 2019 13:25:07 IST