The next Army Chief

The appointment should be discussed

On September 4, Chairman Pakistan Tehrik Insaf (PTI) and former Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed a gathering in Faisalabad and announced that he wanted the appointment of the next Chief of Army Staff (COAS) on the kind of merit not tilted towards the leaders of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) running the central government. He implied that the new COAS appointed by the PDM might be neither strong nor patriotic. He apprehended that certain PDM leaders would seek benefit of the new COAS’s appointment, due in November, to protect their ill-gotten wealth.

With the utterance, the reason behind the constitutional struggle which surfaced in the beginning of this year, became known. Khan and his cohorts wanted to appoint the COAS of their choice, which was denied by the no-confidence move filed by the PDM in the National Assembly. On April 10, the PDM ascended to the throne and took the country’s destiny in their hands. Khan tried to fight back with the demand of elections to make possible a comeback before November, but in vain. Now, Khan is left with the choice of questioning the credentials of the prospective COAS who would not be of Khan’s choice. Khan’s speech was a pre-emptive move of a frustrated politician.

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Khan considered that, by acting in a certain desired way, Army generals were subject to prove their patriotism. This was the same patriotism the PTI kept on denying to the opposition. The Army also used to question the patriotism of others. Now, it might have felt the boomerang effect of its own act.

In response, on September 5, through a press release, the Director General Inter-services Public Relations (ISPR) decried Khan’s statement as “defamatory and uncalled for”. The response also mentioned that Khan’s statement was an attempt to “discredit and undermine senior leadership of Pakistan Army”. It was the first time that the ISPR had to defend the patriotism of the Army generals.

Over the past few years, what the PTI has done is to cross the lines and enter the areas considered prohibited. The targets are the two main institutions, the Army and the judiciary, which were considered part of the troika ruling over the country since 2018.

Pakistan is fast reaching the point where the army has to shed its posture of a sacred cow. The decision about the appointment of a COAS may not be possible within the confined realms. The appointment should be open to public debate, as happens in many developed countries. Any prospective COAS must be asked publicly about his intent to participate in politics.

No doubt, there was no need to question the patriotism or professional credentials of any general, as the ISPR said. There is however another side of the story. The Army remained involved in politics not through its soldiers, but through its generals, including the COAS.

This is what Khan apprehended. He thinks that the new COAS would be part of national politics disfavouring him and his party. The ISPR has not refuted this apprehension, though the ISPR has mentioned that “Pakistan Army reiterates its commitment to uphold the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s past is awash with martial laws. Did the Army uphold the Constitution? Gen Ziaul Haq had to assemble politicians to form a National Assembly which passed the 8th Constitutional Amendment in November 1985 to legitimize his martial law. Gen Pervez Musharraf did the same through the Seventeenth Amendment in December 2003. After 2010, the country witnessed a new version of the Army’s interference in politics and that was through the intelligence agencies. Chiefs of Pakistan’s prime intelligence agency, ISI, remained implicated in manipulating politics favouring the PTI.

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Certain parts of the media were excluded through influencing cable network operators, certain newspapers were barred from delivering in the military cantonments and certain journalists and writers were harassed and banned. At that time, where was the Army’s commitment to uphold the Constitution? The point is simple: the ISPR has lost its credibility. Mere issuance of statements cannot serve the purpose. If Khan has apprehended that the new Army chief would be part of national politics, he is right. The whole country knows it. Only the ISPR is unaware and unacquainted.

What the Pakistan Army is not realizing is that it is failing to shed its Cold War mentality. During the Cold War (1945-1991), the Army remained a recipient of foreign military aid, which made it disassociated from the masses effortlessly. It acquired the posture of being beyond any accountability. The war on terror in Afghanistan is over and with that the era of foreign military aid is also concluded. Now, the army has to rely on public funds; that is, the money which is made available to the Army after taxing the people. It is now solely the public money on which the Army runs, and thus it cannot shy away from accountability.

The ISPR has used an interesting excuse. The press release says: “Regrettably, an attempt has been made to discredit and undermine senior leadership of Pakistan Army at a time when the institution is laying lives for the security and safety of the people of Pakistan every day.” It means that if the times were different, the criticism was possible.

Pakistan is fast reaching the point where the army has to shed its posture of a sacred cow. The decision about the appointment of a COAS may not be possible within the confined realms. The appointment should be open to public debate, as happens in many developed countries. Any prospective COAS must be asked publicly about his intent to participate in politics.

Recently, the country has just narrowly escaped touching rock bottom of financial bankruptcy, despite the fact that the defence budget was increased in June by over 11 percent over last year’s. On the other side, taxes have soared, and inflation is at its peak. The economic survival of the middle class is at stake. The point is simple: any institution run by public money has to be answerable to the public, whether the institution is the Pakistan Army or the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Both have to be brought into the public domain for scrutiny of their performance and acts related to democracy.

One slogan of Khan has carried the day: We are not slaves. Pakistan’s people have a right to ask and debate the appointment of the COAS and the Chief Justice of Pakistan, besides the performance of both the institutions, which are run on public money. Pakistan cannot afford any version of institutional sacredness.

Dr Qaisar Rashid
Dr Qaisar Rashid
The writer is a freelance journalist and can be reached at [email protected]

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