Khan, the government, and the military establishment seem to have taken extreme positions, leaving no room for rapprochement for now, plunging Pakistan into political chaos.
With ample justification, history has been critical of the army generals who remove democratically elected governments and seize power, among them four from Pakistan – Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf.
History may assess the present incumbent, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, differently, perhaps, more critically as, instead of choosing the harsh but simpler martial law route, he has tampered with the democratic system by engineering the ouster of one government, and later, propping up a proxy who grew out of the confines of the military boots and has bitten the hand that fed him.
This is the Pakistan Army’s moment of reckoning since it presided over the dismemberment of the country in 1971. Perhaps, worst, since it is unable to control the forces its actions have released and has conceded precious ground to squabbling politicians engaged in dogfights.
The outcome, as Dawn newspaper put it editorially (November 7, 2022): “The system is imploding, spectacularly — collapsing under the weight of the multiple distortions created by decades of political engineering, not to mention outright military takeovers.”
"Political engineering" refers to the army's role. Of course, General Bajwa is not the first Army Chief to tinker with the system and may not be the last, given the way Pakistan is governed. He is due to retire on November 29, ending an extended six-year tenure, the longest under a democratic set-up that he and his much-feared institution facilitated, albeit with the help of the top judiciary and bureaucracy that have always played ball with the military.
On the precipice
Now, even his exit is not certain because former Prime Minister Imran Khan, the cricketing hero whom Gen Bajwa admired enough to pitch him politically in an experiment that Dawn calls "hybrid", wants him to stay on till a snap poll is held and a new government (read, with him returning as the prime minister) is elected and takes office.
The poll, and by implication the right to appoint the new Army Chief, are Khan’s principal demands for which he has launched “Long March”. It shall resume on November 9, although Khan, shot in the foot in an assassination attempt on November 3, will not lead it till he fully recovers. Only time will tell if Khan and Bajwa, his friend turned foe, have shot themselves in the foot and the extent to which they are harming Pakistan. But then, they are not the only ones to be blamed.
Pakistan is yet again on a precipice. The warning has been there for some time. Unforeseen events appear to drive various stakeholders out to devour one another. One of them was the killing of a pro-Khan journalist Arshad Sharif in distant Kenya. The other, more diabolic, is Khan and his men on the 'March' being fired upon, killing one and injuring seven.
Whoever caused the attack, the incident has not only led to sympathy for Imran Khan, still an iconic figure for his cricketing achievements, including winning for Pakistan the World Cup in cricket in 1992, but created a positive public perception at home and among the world community. In cricketing parlance, if one may recall his glorious days at the game that he excelled before switching to politics, he has forced a follow-on on all his opponents.
Daring the Army
But there is no last ball, or run, in politics. And besides the incumbent government that he accuses the United States of foisting on Pakistan through a "conspiracy", he has been attacking Gen Bajwa, deriding the latter's claim of the Army's "neutrality", saying, "only the animals are neutral." No Pakistani leader has got away with defying both the US and the Army.
In the present case, Bajwa has used his supposed last few weeks in office to brief the US, besides the Saudi and the UAE leaderships that have stakes in Pakistan's political and economic stability. Significantly, Gen Bajwa had confirmed his retirement plans during his Washington visit.
Khan has dared the army by insisting on naming a serving officer of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the first information report before the police. Given the awe in which the bureaucracy – not just the politicians and the judiciary - hold the military, the Punjab government run by an ally is refusing to accept the FIR (first information report). And a combative Khan has approached both, President Arif Alvi and the Supreme Court, to insist on including three names -- Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Internal Security Minister Rana Sahaullah and the ISI's counter-terrorism chief, a serving major general. The last is unthinkable in Pakistan.
Questions being asked
However, after the initial shock and fear on the attack, questions are being asked. Where was his security detail – personal, government and one that the party provides in a volatile situation like a protest rally? Its lapses allowed an armed youth to succeed and then make a quick confession and claim that he was a 'lone wolf', a contention hard to believe.
It is being asked, how come four sharapnels but no bullet, hit Khan when seven others received bullet injuries? Why was he not wearing bullet-proof gear when he had been alleging likely attacks on him and even claimed to know its perpetrator(s)?
But then, Benazir Bhutto had made a similar charge, yet met with her death. Khan has welcomed a probe but with a lack of faith in its outcome. Indeed, nothing has come out of past probes of pasts leaders' assassination, from first premier Liaqat Ali Khan to Benazir.
Khan has put the army on notice by daring it to act against him, promising a "revolution", even if that means the seizure of power by the military. His argument that he has accused an individual officer, and not attacked the "institution" as a whole can hardly wash with a military too used to being respected and obeyed, especially by its ‘laadla’, the word for favourites.
Little room for rapprochement
Pakistan’s problem has been that these ‘favourites’ have at times developed ambitions to be on their own, by wanting to shed the ‘proxy’ label in the name of democracy. Nawaz tried it more than once and it is now Khan’s turn. The difference is that while Nawaz is cooling his heels in London exile, his brother heads the government. Not a 'dynast’ that the army has generally targeted, Khan is a one-man force, a Pied Piper loved by the country’s urban middle classes and sections of youth.
Khan, the government, and the military establishment seem to have taken extreme positions, leaving no room for rapprochement for now, plunging Pakistan into political chaos. How the army responds, by siding with the government of the day or overriding it, will be known, probably in the next few weeks.
(The author is a veteran journalist and commentator on South Asia affairs. Views are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)