For those who are saying that the present tensions over the appointment of a new DG ISI are stage-managed, I would say: “You are dead wrong.”
The stakes, on both sides, are real and high. The man on horseback is walking a tightrope. He cannot afford to take anything lightly or in a carefree manner, because he is being watched continuously and persistently both from within the military rank and file and by the society at large. He has to maintain his image and that of his institution as an omnipotent power center, which in the public imagination is perceived as saviour of the nation and influencer of decision-making at the highest level.
And here we have an army which is in love with its image primarily because image—image means how the army leadership is perceived within the rank and file and how it is perceived in the society at large—is a source of its political power. Any move on the part of anyone in the public realm—any verbal statement or any act, policy or decision—that could affect the image of the army as an institution or the image of the top brass could provoke a reaction. And this reaction is not necessarily a controlled, stage-managed well-calculated response to any move from outside. This could be an instantaneous reaction from an organization which is more than half a million in strength and whose “anger” and “happiness” have in the past influenced the course of political developments in the country.
And so, the appointment of a DG ISI and the way the government has prolonged the issue by not completing the process could hardly be described as a situation that is stage-managed to divert attention away from government’s other troubles or wrong decisions.
This is a situation which can potentially erode relations of trust between the top brass and Prime Minister Imran Khan. Here is a patent lesson for the Prime Minister even before this episode comes to an end: the Pakistan Army as an institution doesn’t like to be led by a general who is caught hobnobbing with political leadership, or is perceived as someone who had been playing second fiddle to the political leadership. Many great military careers in the Pakistan Army have been slaughtered at the altar of political loyalties. Such generals are hardly left in a condition capable of serving the political interest of their political masters. To be sure, the military as an institution loves to see generals play politics during their careers—as often most of them—but only when their politics serves the institutional interests. It will be wise on the part of Prime Minister Khan to realise that he cannot control the institution through an individual. A little history of Bhutto’s and Nawaz Sharif’s dealing with the institution of the army will serve him well. Both tried and failed in the attempts to control the army through individuals.
There is a clear lesson for the man on horseback in this crisis: gone are the days when the Army completely dominated the power structures of the country. Other power centres have emerged in society with the strength and capability to assert themselves in the power game. These power centres are not developed enough to get their way in the country’s political system. But they could prove to be lethal adversaries in any power struggle. His predecessors, when given the choice to choose between the country’s political stability and institutional interests of the Army have always given preference to the latter, causing, in the process, irreparable damage to the country’s political system and social fabric. Of course, an overly assertive approach to serving institutional interests might get the general bit more applause from within the organisation, which seems to be in love with its image. But this method could once again disrupt the political system.
Imran Khan was considered a very pliant Prime Minister till this situation emerged. The sequence of events—ISPR’s 06 October press release announcing the appointment of the DG ISI, and the Information Minister’s announcement that a fresh process to appoint the DG has started—leaves little doubt in the minds of serious observers that Prime Minister Imran Khan has asserted himself in the process of appointment. This gives rise to many questions about what had happened on the 6th of October 2021, when ISPR issued the press release announcing the appointment of Lt General Nadeem Anjum as the new DG ISI.
What forced Prime Minister Imran Khan to demand a fresh process of appointment of the DG ISI? Could it be, perhaps, that General Bajwa bypassed Prime Minister Imran Khan in the process of selection and consultation for appointment of DG ISI? Or is it that in the past PMs have been acting as a rubber stamp in the process of appointment of DG ISI and now Prime Minister Imran Khan asserted his authority under the law?
If we take a charitable view of the situation, we can conclude that General Bajwa bypassed Prime Minister Imran Khan in the process that took place before 06 October, as it has been the norm to take a prime minister’s consent as for granted in the process of appointment of DG ISI. This is a possibility but there is a problem: we know that in the past, PMs like Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto had appointed DGs ISI of their choice – which, in other words, would mean that not all PMs acted as a rubber stamp in the past.
However if we take an uncharitable view of the situation, we might reach the conclusion that the Prime Minister’s authority was usurped and it was only his refusal to accept the appointment of the new DG ISI that led to course correction.
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry’s statement that both Prime Minister Khan and COAS General Bajwa agree that the appointment of the DG ISI is the prerogative of the Prime Minister is, in fact, meant to save skins and stave off even bigger problems. Otherwise ISPR’s press release could be treated as evidence of violation of the Prime Minister’s authority.