Armed neutrality

Imran is trying to prove he didn’t cross any red lines


An armed neutrality implies being neutral, but armed against all comers, not as an expression of pacifism. In Pakistan, however, it has been taken to mean a refusal by the armed forces to take side in a political dispute.

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Imran Khan’s protestations, reinforced by oaths before the Almighty, that he had not contemplated making Lt Gen Faiz Hameed the next Chief of Army Staff, are something of a slur upon an officer who has risen to the rank of lieutenant-general, and who has served not only as DG ISI, but who is nowadays Corps Commander Peshawar. However, Imran was responding to one of the underground defences that isv being offered to the charge of an American conspiracy to oust him.

The defence runs thus: Imran was going to appoint General Faiz COAS in place of the present incumbent, and just as he was supposed to have delivered the 2018 election to him as DG ISI, he would proceed to deliver a two-thirds majority, which would enable Imran to introduce a presidential system. A concomitant was that the opposition was to be totally crushed, with every leader of any stature to be arrested by NAB, disqualified for life and generally ousted from all kinds of political activity. This would pave the way for Imran to rule indefinitely while General Faiz would be rewarded with repeated extensions.

This seems to be a version of the Bangladesh model, where Sh Hasina Wajid has been in power since 2009, after elections following an extended caretaker period,  when technocratic government was tried, with Army backing. THe alternation Sh Hasina’s Awami League and Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party has been jettisoned, mainly because the caretaker provision was removed in 2011, and the Awami League has won the next two elections with increased majorities.

There seems to have been a catch in Imran’s plan. It involved the Army becoming a tool for continued PTI dominance. This is a red lie. The Army will maintain order, but not a regime. If a civilian cannot rule without the military, then the military itself will take over. Thqat is the great lesson of 977, where it appeared to the Army that the PPP government was being maintained by he Army firing on PNA crowds. It seemed that the election had indeed been rigged, and thus the government was being maintained only by the Army.

At the same time, ever since the Zia era, the military has found itself involved in politics, but it has been obedient to the civilian government. However, the enthusiasm to determine the results of elections seems to have culminated with the coming of the PTI to power, which has been described by some commentators as ‘civilian martial law’, as the military was allowed veto power.

An American naval chief once said that he had no time to command the navy because he was too busy meeting Representatives and Congressmen lobbying for the budget. The service chiefs have not yet reached that point, but that is the only way the civilian-military equation can be solved.

The PML(N) had previously been favoured, but the result of that one big red line had been a number of other red lines, like trade with India, the social services and military budgets, foreign relations, but especially with the USA, India and China. Oh yes, military postings. After overthrowing Nawaz in 1999, the military realized that the vConstitution had to be followed. However, if the civilian ruler was obedient, it would be useful.

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Hence the PTI and Imran Khan. However, the message also had to be put out that, unlike other politicians, Imran was not a scoundrel. There has been a progression. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a feudal lord, Nawaz Sharif an industrialist, and Imran the son of a government servant. Imran himself had made his pile rather than inherited it. It is too often forgotten that the officer corps consists of those who have middle class origins, and spend their careers living from one salary to the next.

It is perhaps a short step from wondering why feudal lords or industrialists and businessmen have more money, to why they have more power. Itis also a short step from wondering why these fat cats rely on them, the military, to defend the borders and maintain order (which means defending property rights) to wondering why theory rely on them to remain in power.

It was thus important that Imran convince the military that was not planning to use it to perpetuate himself in power. Further, he would also want the impression removed that he was going to interfere in the COAs’ term, as that would represent a crossing of the redline involving appointments.

It must not be good to be General Faiz these days, because he has been the subject of more discussion than any officer wants to be. He must be the only officer to whose defence the DG ISPR has arisen, when Asif Zardari had joined the chorus of criticism, describing his move to Peshawar as ‘khuddey line’.It should not escape notice that a former President (and thus an ex officio commander-in-chief) viewed the Peshawar Corps Command as khuday line compared to heading the ISI.

For Imran to say that he would, if PM at the time, have appointed the next COAS strictly on merit is to beg the question, of how would the PM assess the merit of the lieutenant-generals eligible for the post. By implying that he would not have appointed General Faiz, is he implying that he did not think him up to the job, or was he implying that he would have appointed him if he had fulfilled the merit?

There lies a dilemma. The only appointment the PM can make in the Army is the COAS. That means he is perhaps over-reliant on the recommendations he receives from the military itself. It is a little like judicial appointments, where this has been a major issue, and seems now resolved though the Judicial Commission of Pakistan, which so far has meant that the judiciary itself controls appointments and elevations, while the chief justiceships go by seniority.

The problem is that the military might become paralyzed by the concept of ‘Buggin’s’ Turn’, that if promotion is to go by seniority (which is probably how the decision would be made between two or more lieutenant-generals equally well qualified. wartime is a different matter, commanders may be sacked at any time And replaced, based on success. Civilian leaders may be changed, but that is a more challenging task. However, in peacetime, commands are not changed unless the officer really blots his copybook. One way this has been avoided is to make sure that promotion does not take place unless the officer is highly unlikely to make a fool of himself. After all, while civilian leaders may change a few generals, the Army is going to use junior officers where they are at the start of a war. Even then, officers may not be up to the mark, in which case they will be changed.

Selections are done by boards, so that an individual’s current and former commanders express an opinion. However, history is replete with examples of senior commanders sacked in the early stages of conflict. Political acumen has never been a criterion, though it should be, perhaps, because the COAS will play a political role. He may choose to remain neutral, but that is because he chooses to. The extent to which a COAS has choice is also not clear, as it may be that he merely acts in accordance with the wishes of his institution.

An American naval chief once said that he had no time to command the navy because he was too busy meeting Representatives and Congressmen lobbying for the budget. The service chiefs have not yet reached that point, but that is the only way the civilian-military equation can be solved.

The Army too must realize that direct rule has not worked. Nor has proxy rule. It might be time to let politicians do their thing. Even if it seems they are running the country into the ground.


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