Commentary by Dr Hamid Hussain
30 August 2019
I fully understand limitations of retired senior officers. We used to have some eccentric ones who would not care about consequences when advocating for the professionalism of their own institution. Now, the silence is deafening. Bless the British who instilled a sense of professionalism in officer corps that has taken a big hit in successor Indian and Pakistani armies. The most scathing criticism came from Lieutenant General Nathu Singh of Indian army who said, “I have not known a British officer who placed his own interests before his country’s, and I have hardly known any Indian officer who did not”.
It is left to some of us to bring mirror into the room; indeed, a heavy burden. When I heard the announcement of General Bajwa’s extension, I recalled two couplets of Urdu poet Ahmad Faraz (for those who understand Urdu);
Ghurur-e-ja’an ko merey ya’ar baich detey hein (My friends sell the honor of their beloved)
Qaba ki hirs mein dastar baich detey hein (Just the way to get themselves a fancy dress, they wold sell their honor too)
Ye loog kiya hein, jo do cha’ar kwahishoon key liye
Tama’am umar ka pindar baich detey hein
(After all who are these people, who sell their life’s pride for a few crumbs)
By Hamid Hussain
‘Power lies in the hands of those who control the means of violence. It lies in the barrel of a gun, fired or silent’.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced three years extension of Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa. This has nothing to do with national security. Army Chief using the power of his institution to favor one political group to come to power and Imran Khan paying back the favor. My view about extension has been very clear that it is very bad for the army as well as the country. Maneuvers about extension usually start quite early and few months ago many interested in Pakistan army asked me this question. I gave my view in the following paragraph written about two months ago:
“2019 looks more like 2007. General Pervez Mussharraf had come under criticism from different quarters of society and in the process army’s reputation was sullied. Change of command provided an exit. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani slowly consolidated his command by sidelining old guard and then convincing all players that army has turned a page. The possible exit for army is change of command in November 2019. However, personal interests of three key players; Prime Minister Imran Khan, army chief General Bajwa and DGISI Faiz Hamid now converge where extension of General Bajwa is being seriously considered. 1-3 year extension will serve all three parties. Bajwa to enjoy few more years of private jet and being the master gamekeeper at the national park. Imran Khan will be seriously thinking about giving him an extension to make sure that an unknown factor does not come into equation. Imran is faced with enormous challenges. However, he has not been able to put his house in order. Rising economic woes and diverse opposition groups coming closer can cause many headaches. Having army brass in his corner is important to weather any storm. He would prefer to continue with known entity than venture into unchartered territory. In case of three years extension, Faiz will be among top contenders in 2022. After 18-24 months as DGISI, Bajwa can appoint him Corps Commander to make him eligible for the top slot. I’m not in favor of any extension but especially in case of Bajwa, negative fallout for army is manifold. Army is seen no more as a neutral body and extreme polarization of Pakistani polity is now directly affecting army as institution.”
General Bajwa did not just walk into Prime Minister’s office to demand an extension of his tenure. This is done in a way where circumstances are created and messages from briefings and body language are conveyed. It is not a secret that army brass has made a strategic decision to give two terms to Imran Khan and General Bajwa is a fan of Imran Khan. It was not in Imran Khan’s interest to inject an unknown factor in the game by appointing a new army chief. General Bajwa had put his own ducks in a row for this outcome by using promotions and postings of senior officers. In his interactions with British and American interlocuters, Bajwa conveyed the point that he is the man for the hour. The buzz word was ‘continuity’. The promise to British was continued quite along the Line of Control (LOC) and to Americans full support to Doha process for the snake pit of Afghanistan. These are policies of the institution and the right course in current circumstances, but a Chief can present it in a way where he can carve out something for himself (General Kayani in his more than a dozen bonhomie meetings with American Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and General Raheel actively working on his own post-retirement lucrative package are two recent examples). There was possibility that former army chief General (R) Raheel Sharif would complete his three years of assignment in Saudi Arabia and General Bajwa could follow him with a very lucrative post-retirement contract. This door was closed when Prince Muhammad Bin Salman gave Raheel a three years extension as we are in extension season. Now the only option for ‘indispensible’ officer was extension.
In my conversations with dozens of officers of different ranks in the last two decades, I have not found a single officer who is in favor of extensions. This includes even those who benefited from coveted appointments, postings as well as post-retiremnt benefits from the beneovolent hand of the ones who got extension. As no one is interested in what civilians say, let’s look at the opinion of army officers. Former Pakistan Air Chief Air Marshal Zulfiqar Ali Khan stated that ‘institutions are destroyed when indispensible individuals enter it’. Another former Air Chief Air Marshal Zafar Chaudry was of the view that ‘You are insulting individuals and the system by insisting that work cannot be done without one particular individual. If the system is depending on an individual, then that system is wrong’. A fine officer critical of culture of sycophancy once told me that ‘if everyone is so great then how can one explain disasters of biblical proportions that have befallen on the country’. Late Lieutenant General ® Jahandad Khan once told me that ‘officer is only remembered for what he gave to the army and not the other way around?’ He was so right as ones who only used different tools available to climb the promotion ladder simply fade away. Late Major General Naseerullah Khan Babar used to tell me with his characteristic mischievous smile that ‘my dear; we have our own perfect legal ways of corruption for which you cannot convict us in any court of law’.
Ambition is an essential part of success. To be fair to General Bajwa, he is not a monk but a fallible human being. Like all of us, he relishes the absolute power he is enjoying and wants another lap on the track. This is understandable at individual level. However, at institutional level, he has taken the army into a rabbit hole with his extension. The aspirants for the top slot are naturally disappointed and there will be whispering in the army. He will take the opportunity to shuffle the brass in late September 2019 and bring junior ones to important positions. One can already figure out that ‘lady luck’ will smile on officers near Bajwa’s orbit who will get promotions and prized appointment. All opposition parties on the receiving end squarely blame army brass and they may conclude that the only opening for them is to make things uncomfortable for the army. There is severe restriction on print and electronic media but drawing rooms and social media is already abuzz with criticism of this decision. In the last two years, Pakistan has slowly walked into a dead end street whether by design or by some ill thought decisions. Usually, the way out of such a situation is large scale violence on the street or natural or unnatural death of key players. Death of General Muhammad Zia ul Haq in 1988 and assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 are case in point.
Many observers of Pakistan are of the view that army brass and judiciary is politicized in the sense that both institutions have taken upon themselves to put the finger on the balance of political fights. They may have many genuine reasons for this action, but one cannot escape the consequences. In such situations, politics is first ‘de-politicized’ in the sense that ruling group rivalries are now mediated by outsiders and disgruntled elements run to army for support. This is what exactly happened to Imran Khan where more than half of his cabinet has been parachuted into the inner circle by the army. This is going to get worse and in the process army’s reputation will be tarnished. The second phase is ‘militarization of politics’ in the sense where some in opposition see no chance in normal political process and opt of either street violence or armed struggle against the state.
Modern armies are large bureaucracies and Pakistan army is no exception. General Bajwa is no Rommel and the one who was going to replace him in November 2019 was not going to be Guderian. They are all above average hard working officers who work inside their own institution to reach higher ranks. Army itself ensures a level playing field and a culture of meritocracy. Anyone among top dozen senior officers will be as good or as bad as the other. There are always exceptions but most tread on a ‘well beaten path’ with quite visible career sign posts to reach ‘respectable mediocrity’. The real question is negative fallout for the institution when rules are bypassed, and institutional norms trampled. Such measures divert attention from real challenges faced by the army. Institutional concerns about higher direction of war, improvement of efficiency, long term sustainability of a very top heavy brass, control of waste etc. fall on the wayside as controversies about individuals suck all the oxygen.
General Bajwa was not a charismatic officer in his thirty odd years military career. He is given deference due to an army chief. Since announcement of extension, his approval ratings have dropped several hundred points like a bad stock market day. He compromised on the respect gained over a thirty years long career for additional three years of vanity. This is not my opinion but verdict of history. The long list of Chiefs who basked in the artificial light of extension includes Ayub Khan, Muhammad Musa, Zia ul Haq, Pervez Mussharraf and Ashfaq P. Kayani. They are all castigated and ridiculed but alas after they hanged their uniforms or departed the world and cannot defend themselves. The ones still in this world are lonely and shunned by even by their own erstwhile comrades and one hopes that the ones in heaven are not as lonely.
One simple fact that is ignored very often is that problems of modern nation states are beyond the capacity of any single individual; whether civilian or uniformed. Unrealistic expectations invariably result in huge disappointments and the result is that all the good is washed away very quickly when analyzed with the hind sight of 20/20 vision. Whether civilian or military, focus should be on strengthening the institutions. This takes time and there are no short cuts. Scoundrels may sneak in and occupy high positions but if system is reasonably functioning then the damage is manageable. British left behind decent police, bureaucracy, education system and armed forces. It gradually degraded by putting individuals ahead of the institutions.
“Soldiers ought more to fear their general than their enemy”. Michel De Montaigne