The Defense Minister, Khawaja Asif, says the process for the appointment of the next army chief has started and should conclude by next Wednesday. But his colleague, the interior minister, Rana Sanaullah, claims the process is over, a decision has been taken and an announcement is due any day. Meanwhile, the finance minister, Ishaq Dar, who is the de facto deputy prime minister, is reported to have dashed to the Presidency to ensure that when the Prime Minister’s advice to appoint so-and-so finally reaches Arif Alvi only days ahead of the incumbent chief’s retirement there will be no foot dragging at that end, provoking Fawad Chaudhry, Imran Khan’s loudspeaker, to reassure PTI supporters that Mr Alvi will do exactly what Imran Khan orders him to do rather than what Mr Dar begs him not to do. Meanwhile, the prime minister, Shahbaz Sharif, is reported to be quarantined with Covid-19 but is engaged in hectic consultations with his allies and partners, notably Maulana Fazal ur Rahman (who called on him!) and Asif Zardari. If this is bewildering, consider what is transpiring on the other side of the fence.
Imran Khan has taken so many different positions on this issue that one has lost track. He began by blasting General Qamar Javed Bajwa in words that cannot be repeated but ended by advocating a six-month extension for him until after the next elections when the new elected government should appoint his successor. Then he opined that the next army chief could be chosen by the PDM government but should be chosen on merit, only to later change “merit” to “seniority” as in the rules governing elevation to the office of the chief justice of Pakistan. Imran Khan has also explained that the purpose and goal of the Long March is to pressure the PDM government to agree to an early rather than late general election but, curiously, the Long March is consciously planned to enter Islamabad exactly on the eve of the announcement of the next army chief, suggesting its aim is to influence the latter decision rather than the former.
Not to be left behind, GHQ is not immune from its share of back stabbing and embracing. One group is plugging one “senior-most” general and another group is backing another “senior-most” general. The confusion is compounded by a debate over the issue of seniority and how easy or difficult it will be for the government to solve this matter. In all this, the current chief has his own vested interest to protect by backing one or the other candidate: who will help get Imran Khan off his back, facilitate safe passage for him and guarantee he won’t be harassed or hounded after retirement like General Pervez Musharraf was after he doffed his uniform. And failing that, getting a six month extension to oversee the next elections and manipulate the selection of the next Chief himself.
The incredible irony in this pushing, shoving and jostling is laid bare by one fact of history and life: every army chief has bit the hand that fed him. General Ayub Khan turfed out President Iskandar Mirza, General Yayha Khan sent Ayub Khan to pasture, General Zia ul Haq sent Z A Bhutto to the gallows, General Waheed Kakar packed off President Ishaq Khan, General Pervez Musharraf ousted Nawaz Sharif, General Ashfaq Kayani eased out General Musharraf, General Raheel Sharif rustled up a dharna to try and get rid of Nawaz Sharif, and General Qamar Javed Bajwa facilitated, by turns, the ouster of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan (the fate of Shahbaz Sharif still hangs in the balance). As the late COAS General Asif Nawaz famously quipped: “Yara, see this Chief’s ‘chichi’ finger? When it can move half a million armed men by a twitch, how can the Chief be anyone other than his own man?”
In the next ten days, we shall witness a desperate, mad, scramble for power within various sections of the ruling elites. There will be betrayal, duplicity, treachery, perfidy, back-stabbing, possibly even bloodshed. The PDM government wants to appoint its “own man” who will commit to backing it in office until late next year at least while keeping Imran Khan at bay. Imran Khan seeks the opposite, that is, someone who will kick out the PDM and facilitate his return to power as in 2018. General Bajwa doesn’t care a fig about the fate of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, he just wants to pick his successor who can give him a royal send-off so that he can enjoy his hard-won perks and privileges, a difficult goal in such vengeful times, or, failing that, another lease of tenure.
And the next Chief? Will he retreat into the shadows like General Waheed Kakar until he is pulled out to march into the prime minister’s house? Or will he hoist Shahbaz Sharif on his shoulders like General Bajwa did Imran Khan until it’s time to drop him? There is an uncanny, ominous, sense of deja vu.
Nero was fiddling while Rome was burning. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, was penning verse when Hindustan was crumbling. The Pakistani elites are clambering for power when the country is imploding.