General Bajwa, please retire

This blog was previously published on 28 November 2019 and is being re-published, like many recovered blogposts, over here.

There has been a crisis of governance in Pakistan over the last few days as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) controlled government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has abandoned all its governance reponsibilities to try and get General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) an extension of three more years.

Now he is about to begin a period as Army Chief, beyond his entitlement. Unlike calling for his firing, like I did the last time a COAS got an extension, I will take a more measured approach to what should be done here. Let’s look at the era that General Bajwa inhabited as the leader of Pakistan’s 550,000 man army.

Since General Bajwa came to power in late November 2016, (coincidentially, after Donald Trump secured a victory in the 2016 US elections, distracting the US from political developments across the world) he has presided over, in the words of former columnist Cyril Almeida, “the greatest rollback of civil liberties, political rights and media freedom in a generation.”

More dissident parts of the media came under active surveillance, Pakistani Facebook bloggers were picked up with accusations of first blasphemy, then switching to allegations of personal corruption, and the PML-N’s political activists (and those of other non military allied political formations) were pursued and locked up with a vengeance throughout 2017.

The Prime Minister at that time, Nawaz Sharif, of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was under a serious cloud of scandal from his relation to the Pakistan section of the Panama Paper leaks. This had emboldened the reactionary right wing under Imran Khan and his PTI party as well as other the reactionary segments of the political opposition, the media, and much of the army which was not happy with him due to his consolidating position as Prime Minister and pursued a whisper campaign against him as a tainted friend of Pakistan’s rival, India.

This all came to a head with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s removal from power in July 2017 and his succession by the hapless Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as Pakistan’s new Prime Minister.

This win for the military and reactionary nationalist segments of the state are consolidated by the months long crisis that happens in Pakistan at the hands of the extremists of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasollullah (TLYRA) .

Abbasi’s months old government is then hounded by sit-ins in the capital by the sectarian extremists of the TLYRA who created such an air of fanaticism that a PML-N minister, Ahsan Iqbal was shot at and nearly died.

With the government on the ropes, the country went into an election in 2018 that was charged with mounting repression of the media by the state, of the political government’s party members or their allied groups coming under mounting threats and oppression and a society that was being repressed by anti-blasphemy paranoia, turbo charged by roaming fanatics who claimed to be partisans of the Prophet of Islam, in an anti-Ahmedi sort of way that cut into the PML-N’s own anti-Ahmedi, pro-blasphemy votebank.

So the election of July 2018 happens and the margin of difference between the PTI and the PML-N is the approximately 4 million votes half of which go to the TLYRA’s political formation, the TLP. Clearly, Imran Khan’s two decades of political demonisation of the not very above board PML-N and PPP has paid off and now Mr Imran Khan is Pakistan’s Prime Minister.

The banned cover of Sohail Warraich’s 2010 book “Yay Company Nahi Chalay Gi” (This Company Will Not Run) all copies of which were confiscated from its publisher in Lahore.

As his governance begins, the abysmal and darkly comic performance of his government at the federal centre of Pakistan lay bare the Prime Minister’s incompetence and ignorance of governance. There is a balance of payment crisis and the government mis-judges India’s mood as friendly, when the newly re-elected Narendra Modi government clamps down on Kashmir instead of opening up with it’s fellow religio-nationalist reactionaries across the border. Active moves to suppress the opposition and the media continue from 2018 into 2019. It is small wonder that this political government has been called a hybrid regime and seen as being hand-in-glove with the Pakistan Army.

All this time, General Bajwa stood in the background, the shady shogun of a reactionary nationalist, allegedly democratic dispensation. Unlike previous Army Chiefs this century, such as Generals Raheel Sharif, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and Pervez Musharraf, there is very little critique published in regards to him.

Since I’ve read very few printed critiques of General Bajwa I had only a basic frame with which to describe him. It made writing this blog feel a little strange. Like flexing a numb hand.

However, watching events this week, an old quote from General Musharraf’s decade-long dictatorship came to mind: the graveyards are full of indispensible men.

Imran Khan’s government granted General Bajwa an extension in August 2019. However, when it was challenged this week in the Supreme Court, the retiring Chief Justice decided to take up the petition on a suo motu basis and simply questioned the legality of the extension. When it came up that the extension had no basis in the law, the reactionary nationalist PTI moved to quickly change the law. This lead to the situation we are in now, where the decision to extend an Army Chief’s tenure has now been kicked into parliament.

For one military bureaucrat, the Army Chief, the entire federal machinery of Pakistan has ground to a halt to shamelessly grant him an extension as the chief. This is embarrassing for this country.

The PTI government will remain a shambolic mess. And if General Qamar Javed Bajwa extends his tenure, then his name will be etched with this slow moving disaster. However, the General remains a military man, and there is an honourable way for him to write his name in this country’s history. In my retelling of the PML-N government’s fall and the PTI government’s rise General Bajwa only remains a grey eminence. If he takes this extension and decides to continue to be the military support beam for this chaos Imran Khan and his acolytes call governance, then his name will be forever attached to this disaster.

There is an honourable way out of this, an easy opportunity to still take the ride into the sunset, that General Bajwa’s age and bureaucratic convention entitle him to. Retire. Take the way out. Leave this overgrown teenager who you have foisted on this country, grow up and take the responsibility that he has been howling for.

And don’t be the fall guy for an institute that you served but harboured the snakes who tried to have you condemned for sectarian reasons. I did not mention this earlier, but I think it bears mentioning that the Ahmadi sect is considered heretical by a dangerously large number of Pakistanis who consider themselves devout. When General Bajwa became Chief of the Army in November 2016 he was dogged by rumours of either being an Ahmedi or being related to them, in a country that is dangerous for Ahmedis. This is dangerous in Pakistan, and the vectors of this sectarian rumour mongering was alleged to be from the army or the more anti-Ahmedi parts of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party. This was a poisonous start to what should have been a relatively smooth transition of power from the tough-against-terrorism General Raheel Sharif to a successor who would be leading an army in a relatively less violent Pakistan.

Now however General Bajwa is powerful. But he will not be so forever. The PTI, can falter. And as a man explicitly soon tied to this party and his votebank for a further three years, General Bajwa will be dragged from a grey eminence into an exposed support beam for this government. Bajwa can contemplate the position of General Kayani, and how he became inextricably linked to the disasters of President Zardari’s government, how much of a cleanser it felt when in 2013, General Raheel Sharif, brother to one martyr, nephew to another, bought a fully martial bearing on an army that had to fight the Taliban in North Waziristan and chase them out of the rest of the country. General Bajwa can also remember what a sheepish figure the retired Kayani looked like in his sherwani at one of the military parades held under General Raheel.  Pakistan can do without all this neo-Shogunism. Being an Islamic shogunate is tiresome for a country and a people.

If this is not enough, General Bajwa can contemplate the snakes, the poisonous snakes in civil politics and in his own army. And then he can think about a future where these creeps aren’t his problem. Simultaneously, General Bajwa doesn’t have to end up like Kayani. There’s still time. General sahab can still buy the ticket, take the ride and GTFO from the disaster that is Pakistani politics. The rest of us still have to live here.

Please retire.

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