Foreign media reported on July 29 that Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa called US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, asking her to weigh in on the IMF to expedite dispersal of $1.2 billion to Pakistan.
Reporting on the call was led by professionally-reliable Japanese news agency Nikkei Asia. The story, titled Pakistan army chief appeals to U.S. in rush to avoid debt default, went viral internationally but it did not shock anyone in Pakistan. Only slight murmurs were heard on whether it was the army chief’s constitutional role to get involved in these matters or was the army chief trying to play his role in helping Pakistan out of a near default situation.
While a majority of politicians, including those forming the government, have not publicly reacted to the army chief’s call for the US help, former Prime Minister Imran Khan said in an interview that it was not the army chief’s job to make the call, and if Pakistan is asking for the US help, the US will ask for a quid pro quo.
Just to put matters in perspective, the army chief also intervened with Saudi Arabia and the UAE during Imran Khan’s government. Pakistan was then too facing issues of fast depleting dollar reserves and needed early dispersal of dollars and sale of crude oil on soft terms. Back then, relieved ministers of the PTI government had praised the army chief’s successful intervention. Prime Minister too had appreciated the army chief’s help. The army chief’s constitutional mandate and his role was not questioned then. In fact, the army chief’s facilitation was viewed as normal because the civilian government and the army top command where considered “on the same page.”
Is it ok for a country’s army chief to call another country’s official, and ask for help on early disbursement of funds from the IMF? Certainly not.
However, the then opposition leaders had viewed the army chief’s intervention with some consternation on the political front, viewing it as favouring the army’s own PM. Unsurprisingly hardly any questions related to the army chief’s constitutional role were raised.
The chief’s SOS phone call to Sherman raises multiple embarrassing questions about the state of affairs within Pakistan, about governance, foreign policy, economy, the government, including the army chief’s understanding of global affairs and the workings of organisations like the IMF. Of all these questions, four are noteworthy:
One, is it ok for a country’s army chief to call another country’s official, and ask for help on early disbursement of funds from the IMF? Certainly not. The army chief, unless there is military rule in the country, would have nothing to do with calling foreign officials or getting involved in the economic affairs of the country. His call for such lobbying exposes the army’s special line of communication with the US administration — a fact well-known. Yet, given that Pakistan is in a difficult strategic space, where its economic challenge is to tread carefully on the geostrategic front, with China as its long-standing partner and the US, a country of significance that Pakistan must remain engaged with, such a call by the army chief sends wrong signals on multiple fronts. It’s reduces Pakistan’s stature and negotiating position. No matter what the economic difficulty, its not the army chief’s place to make such a call. It merely reinforces the primary role that the army top command seeks, and especially in recent years, enjoys as the main interlocutor in the Pakistan-US relations.
Such a move reflects a lack of understanding of how the US system works. Unlike the royal Saudi system, where old and continuing military ties may translate into some leverage, the US system works mostly in a non-personalised manner where policy decisions are weighed against how a move would advance the US policy goals. Clearly Pakistan-US relations are in a difficult space and no simple calculation is possible. Hence the army chief’s call would be of no advantage to Pakistan since his stature has been diluted — given the increase in power of political players, especially Imran Khan’s street power.
Two, if such a call is unlikely to accrue any advantage then why was the call made? In Pakistan’s case, especially since the PTI government came to power, and after Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power, the army chief did get marginally involved in Pakistan’s economic affairs because there were demands for increase in the defense-related expenses. After the PTI government came into power, General Bajwa was virtually a hands-on economy man, with military men involved in matters such as IPPS to special development projects and more. Interestingly, since the coalition government took charge of strategy to deal with the IMF, the moves were closely watched by Pakistan’s top intel agency and the privatization policy in the GHQ. The foreign minister’s close engagement with the military top command is well-known. This government, like the previous Imran Khan government was also facilitated to some extent into power by the military top command, and is viewed as dependent on the military top command.
The chief has long acted as Pakistan’s foreign minister, in engaging with the US specifically. The US embassy DCM often visits the army chief. The issue of entitlement on both sides has long been obvious.
The office of the army chief has long moved into an extra-constitutional space. The question about the phone call is irrelevant. The chief has long acted as Pakistan’s foreign minister, in engaging with the US specifically. The US embassy DCM often visits the army chief. The issue of entitlement on both sides has long been obvious.
Three, what does such an SOS call suggest about Pakistan’s economic situation? Such a call, which must have been made public by the US administration clearly conveys how desperate Pakistan is to get the IMF disbursement – and the chief’s call further stamps Pakistan’s desperation for funds and the fear of vulnerability.
And finally, what does this phone mean for the Pakistan-US relations? It reinforces that the army top command is the main interlocutor in the Pakistan-US relations.
Whether the call would expedite the disbursement of USD 1.2 billion any earlier than early September when the IMF summer break ends, this phone call might encourage financial rating companies to further downgrade Pakistan’s financial position. The call however reflects the debilitating power play within Pakistan and how it also influences Pakistan’s external relations.