September 21, 2023

Hybrid theory: How the military continues to engineer Pakistani politics

Pakistan Army Mil Mi-171 taking part in Friendship-2016 exercises in Cherat. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

When General Pervez Musharraf was voted out of the country’s presidency in 2008, followed by his exile, Pakistan’s 60 years of existence had seen thirty-three years of military rule – a majority of its life. It was, therefore, hard to believe the former General and President, himself, when he insisted that an ‘era of real democracy’ had begun in Pakistan when the Pakistan Peoples Party took office that year. It seemed easier and much more logical to count the days till the democratically elected government fumbled, and the next coup took place.

All eyes were set on General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani – who had succeeded General Pervez Musharraf as the country’s Chief of Army Staff on November 29, 2007 – despite his assertion that the army would ‘stay out of politics’. Kayani, however, delivered on his promise, as soon as he took office, ordering all military officials to step down from any positions that they held in the civil government. Kayani could be credited completely for this move as his predecessor, Musharraf, showed no inclination or commitment towards a sincere disengagement of the civilian government and the military.

This was back in the Spring of 2008 – thirteen, nearly fourteen, years ago. In this time, the country saw, for the first time in its history, the completion of a democratic term. The first ever civilian government of Pakistan to complete its five-year tenure was the Peoples Party government that took over from Musharraf in 2008, and the second was its successor, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s government that gave way to the current regime in 2018.

And then, all of a sudden, it all seemed to come to an end.

After a poll deemed the ‘dirtiest, most micromanaged’ in the country’s history – which saw the arrest and disqualification of PML-N chief, Mian Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, as part of blatant pre-poll manipulation, and the PTI’s pre-poll fishing for heavyweight electables like Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Javed Hashmi, widely regarded as the chief reason behind the surge in the party’s vote bank that election year – the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf emerged victorious in the 2018 general elections.

In a recent investigative report by Fact Focus, it has been suggested that Nawaz and Maryam were both arrested at the behest of the army, who wanted to bring PTI into power.

Branded as a ‘selected’ ruling party, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has been in power since gaining a simple majority in the National Assembly in 2018. According to its critics, the government’s three years in office so far have all but confirmed the allegations of it being aided by the Pakistani military into office – hence, selected, as opposed to elected – sending the country a decade back as far as civil-military disengagement is concerned.

As soon as he took over, Imran Khan began the appointment of several military personnel to civilian positions, a development that was brought into the spotlight – for all the wrong reasons – when an airplane belonging to the state airline, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) crashed in Karachi on May 22, 2020. The fact that the department was being headed by the (in-service!) Air Marshal Arshad Malik, was touted as the reason behind its mismanagement and a debate ensued if it was wise to hand over civilian departments to former or current military servicemen.

The Imran Khan-led government also appointed as many as 13 ex-military officials – 2 retired air marshals and 11 retired major generals – in January, 2020, as envoys to various countries, including the appointment of Lieutenant General Bilal Akbar as the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a move that made headlines across the globe. Furthermore, the former cricketer also chose the retired Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa – former Director General of the Pakistani military’s information wing, known as the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) – in April 2020, to be his ‘special assistant’ on media, an appointment that was termed ‘unprecedented’.

Bajwa subsequently resigned from this position after being embroiled in the ‘pizza corruption scandal’ – also initiated by Fact Focus’s Ahmad Noorani – which suggested that that the retired Lieutenant General had built a multimillion dollar business in the United States. The Prime Minister of Pakistan refused Bajwa’s resignation, while his government alleged that neighbouring India was behind the controversy.

Despite being criticised for intertwining the civil and military affairs again after ten years of relative independence for the elected governments, and for the visible disadvantages of this approach, Khan again appointed another former military man to head a civilian department: in February 2021, he assigned retired Brigadier Bilal Saeedullah Khan the Director Generalship of the country’s chief database organizer, National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). This repeated ‘selection’ of military men to head civilian offices earned the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s government the reputation of being a ‘hybrid’ regime.

All, however, is not well in the realms of the ‘hybrid’ regime. Reports of discontent between the civil and military leadership have been arising recently, especially over the matter of the appointment of the next chief of the Pakistani spymaster, the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI. It was suggested that the Prime Minister and the current Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, faced off over the decision to choose the next Director General of the ISI: while Khan believed it was better to allow the incumbent Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed to continue in office – primarily due to his smart dealing in the event of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan – until matters settled in the neighbouring country, the Army Chief favoured the appointment of Lieutenant General, Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, who was ultimately chosen for the office on October 26 this year.

Despite the event not resulting in a visible altercation between the civil and military leadership, however it is safe to believe that Khan is treading on thin ice when he chooses to ‘interfere’ in the military’s ‘internal matters’, with some even suggesting that his government’s days might even now be numbered.

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