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Pakistanis Weigh Another Term For Powerful Army Chief

FILE: Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
FILE: Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Pakistanis are debating whether the country’s current army chief should be given a new term in office beyond November, when he is set to retire.

Proponents and opponents of extending General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s term are going to great lengths to argue for or against why his stay in office or departure would best serve the interests of the military and Pakistan.

“Overall, we are going through a very sensitive phase – an important phase,” Pakistani journalist and television host Kamran Khan said this week. “Efforts are underway to stop the spread of extremism and the dangers of FATF [blacklisting of Pakistan] have not gone away,” he added, referring to the Financial Action Task Force, which keeps Islamabad on a gray list of countries for allegedly failing to enforce strict laws to end terrorist financing. FATF will review Pakistan’s progress again in November.

The debate surrounding Bajwa’s tenure is important because the future of the civilian administration and key security and economic policies are tied to whether he stays in what is arguably the country’s most powerful office. Four army chiefs have ruled the country as military dictators for nearly half of Pakistan’s 70-year history.

During the past two decades, supporters of two of Pakistan’s former army chiefs, General Pervez Musharraf and General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, made similar arguments to extend their terms in office. Musharraf held the post until 2007 after launching a coup in 1999. After 9/11, he became a frontline ally of Washington. In July 2010, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani extended Kayani’s term in office for three years because his leadership was deemed ‘indispensable’ in the country’s fight against terrorism.

During his primetime television show on July 15, Kamran Khan attempted to build a similar case for Bajwa.

“If Bajwa continues as the army chief, Pakistan can meet key economic, foreign policy, and national security milestones during the next one to two years,” he argued. “It will also strengthen Imran Khan’s leadership.”

Given the fact that the Pakistani prime minister holds the power to appoint the army chief, the incumbent Imran Khan’s fate is seen as inextricably linked with Bajwa’s.

Opposition politicians accused Khan of being a ‘selected’ prime minister because, under Bajwa’s leadership, the military paved his path to power by systematically targeting his opponents in an anticorruption campaign and then rigging the July 2018 election in his favor. They accuse the cricketer-turned-politician of governing under Bajwa’s tutelage who is still calling the shots on all major policies.

But Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party rejects such criticism. Leaders of the party, now mostly cabinet members and Khan, have repeatedly argued that the healthy working relationship between their administration and the military is a good omen for Pakistan.

“There is not a single decision that I haven’t taken on my own, and there’s not a single decision that doesn’t have the support of the army,” Khan said in December.

Talat Hussain, an independent journalist in Islamabad, sees a lot of efforts underway to make a case for Bajwa’s extension as his retirement date in November nears. He argues that it will be a political decision.

“It has nothing to do with Pakistan’s national security, foreign policy, economy, and society,” he said. “Efforts are underway to link it to these, but it remains a political issue.”

Hussain argued that by casting Bajwa as indispensable, his supporters are conveying the message that he is running the country’s defense, foreign, and economic policies. “If Bajwa is taking care of everything, then the question arises: What is Imran Khan running?” Hussain said on his YouTube show.

On July 17, Bajwa met with Khan, and there was little reporting beyond a vague “discussion on security issues.” The two will be soon going to Washington. Last year, Bajwa appeared optimistic about his country’s democracy. “Democracy is very much flourishing and will flourish in the future, too,” he told the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan news agency.

But without naming Bajwa, opposition politicians are highly critical of the military’s policies under his command. They blame the military for blindly supporting the PTI and orchestrating a crackdown on all dissent and imposing unprecedented censorship even by Pakistani standards where press freedom was never ideal.

“I will say it is a civil martial law and wannabe martial law administration,” former president and Pakistan Peoples Party leader Asif Ali Zardari told journalists recently, comparing the current government to formal military rule.

Almost all major opposition political parties are expected to join a ‘black day’ protest on July 25 to protest what they claim was a rigged election in favor of the ruling PTI on the same date last year.

“Insha’Allah (eds: Arabic for God willing) I shall be leading protest rallies across Pakistan,” Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, tweeted. “We will not only ask for justice for Nawaz Sharif but demand [the] rule of law, freedom of expression, end to manipulation of the entire system to punish public representatives, stealing people’s mandate, imposition of SELECTED for the manipulated win.”

Still, the partnership between Bajwa and Khan appears to have been cemented. Come November, Kamran Khan hints at continuity instead of change.

“My sources say that he [Khan] has decided and his decision is in the best interest of Pakistan,” he said.