Imran Khan didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the last election without critical Miltablishment support. Indeed, he would have long perished under the weight of his monumental incompetence if the same Miltablishment hadn’t continued to prop him up, often at great institutional embarrassment. Why then has he irrevocably antagonized the Miltablishment by insisting that General Faiz Hameed, DGISI, should continue to head the agency when the institutional chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has decided to order otherwise?
The worst kept national secret is that Imran Khan wants Gen Faiz Hameed to remain head of the ISI and continue working to keep the opposition under heel and deliver the next election to him as he did in 2018. As reward, Imran Khan has promised to appoint Gen Faiz army chief in November 2022 when General Bajwa retires. But the “stitching up” in this scheme has started to unravel and led to the current crisis.
For starters, it seems that speculation about General Bajwa seeking another extension next year may have startled both Imran Khan and General Faiz. Conspiracy theorists say that if General Bajwa wants the extension and Imran Khan gives it to him, that would spell the end of General Faiz’s ambitions. But if he doesn’t get it from Imran Khan, he may try to manipulate politics (via the ISI and general elections next year instead of in 2023 as scheduled) to make sure that he gets it from Imran Khan’s successor, especially if he has anything to do with putting him there. This would put paid to the ambitions of both Imran Khan and General Faiz. So they would have a joint vested interest in retaining full command of the ISI for as long as possible to consolidate their respective positions.
But conspiracy theories apart, there are solid reasons why Miltablishment leaders have finally rallied behind General Bajwa against Imran Khan. One, the opposition in general, but Nawaz and Mayam Sharif in particular, have succeeded in shifting the ire of the people for their daily suffering away from Imran Khan to the Miltablishment which is now being discredited for the ISI’s rough and ready ways to sustain such an unpopular government. Two, Miltablishment Three-Stars fear that if General Faiz is made the next army chief, he will stick around, along with Imran Khan, for another six years, dashing their succession hopes and bringing their hallowed institution into further popular disrepute.
The current crisis originates in historical stakeholder predicaments. Miltablishment leaders want to pull back the ISI from its overt and often brutal political interventions in support of an increasingly unpopular Imran Khan and let the chips fall where they may. So they have backed General Bajwa’s decision to shunt General Faiz to 11 Corps in Peshawar and appoint Gen Nadeem Anjum, currently Corps 5 Commander Karachi, as DGISI. The rub is that until Imran Khan, as PM, orders the appointment of General Nadeem Anjum as DGISI, Gen Faiz can’t be relieved of his post and shunted to 11 Corps as ordered by General Bajwa.
Thus, with the PM dragging his feet and refusing to issue the relevant orders, we have a deadlock. This has now acquired dangerous proportions because both sides have made their positions known publicly and neither can afford to retreat without losing face and power.
Pakistan’s political history confirms that the Miltablishment always wins whenever there is a clash with civilian authorities. Why, then, has Imran Khan turned his staunchest ally into a potential foe?
Some people argue that he has seen the writing on the wall – this is going to be his first and last term – and has decided to dig his heels in and go down fighting as a political martyr for “civilian supremacy” rather than pathetically cling on to face an ignominious rout at the polls. Others insist that he is confident only because he believes he can pull it off by following the political guidance of his spiritual mentor and wife.
Of course, “civilian supremacy” has nothing to do with this case. Such notions are relevant in established constitutional democracies where civilian defense of democratic and constitutional institutions is mandatory, not in a willfully established hybrid regime built on fraud and vote rigging in which a supremely egoistic and arrogant “prime minister” seeks to wipe out all democratic and constitutional opposition by subverting state institutions like FIA, FBR, NAB, ISI, IB, etc, to enthrone himself as the sole and unaccountable ruler. Much the same was the case of Nawaz Sharif in his second term from 1997-99 when he tried to become Amir ul Momineen and handpick army chiefs to do his bidding.
Where do we go from here?
One way out is for Imran Khan or General Bajwa to swallow their pride and sign on the other’s dotted line. The only problem is that General Bajwa represents an armed consensus while Imran Khan cannot even clutch at a feeble civilian resolution. Indeed, if Imran Khan tries to subvert a Miltablishment huddle, chances are he might pay a very high personal and political price, as did Nawaz Sharif in 1999. The Miltablishment always has options, even it appears to have none legally, because it is a de facto power par excellence. Neither General Zia ul Haq in 1977 nor General Pervez Musharraf in 1999 weighed their “options” too carefully before jumping the gun against popular political leaders. To boot, Imran Khan is highly unpopular while the popular opposition is silently praying for his ouster by hook or by crook.
Unfortunately, Imran Khan has not helped his cause, first by stepping on the toes of the very Miltablishment that brought him into office and has propped him up since, and then by prolonging the crisis and creating ever more distrust and suspicion. After all, the Miltablishment is the proverbial elephant in the room, and elephants are known to have long memories.
By all accounts, it is going to be downhill for Imran Khan now. The opposition is definitely going to explore ways and means to press home the advantage of a serious crack in the hybrid regime. It is also natural to assume that state institutions, like the judiciary for example, currently at the beck and call of Imran Khan will look out to assert autonomy,if not independence. And it is seriously moot whether the Miltablishment will consciously rise to the defense of the PTI regime when it needs it the most.