Speculations are rife as notification for the appointment of the new DG ISI remains unissued eight days after the announcement was made by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR). Latest reports suggest the defence ministry would be given a summary by GHQ with three names for the spy chief which would be forwarded to the PM who will then select the man of his choice. The timeframe for the completion of this process remains unclear at the time of writing of these lines.
The controversy first emerged after some analysts noticed the prime minister office’s conspicuous silence over the ISPR press release announcing Lt General Nadeem Anjum’s appointment as the new DG ISI and Lt Gen Faiz Hameed’s transfer as Peshawar Corps Commander. Government officials had initially refrained from commenting on the issue, and journalists who reported on the apparent deadlock on their Youtube channels or social media pages were accused of peddling fake news.
But Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry’s statement on Tuesday morning that the authority to appoint the DG ISI rests with the PM and the same would be decided after ‘due consultation’ (despite the military having announced the appointment) confirmed the civilian-military tension.
If chatter coming from Islamabad is to be believed, what caused this standoff was the prime minister’s insistence that the appointment of the spy master is his decision to make. This has led many to wonder if Khan has inadvertently become the flag-bearer of civilian supremacy.
To address this question, one needs to look at PM Khan’s reasons for disagreeing with the army chief’s decision. There are multiple theories on why the prime minister is desperate to retain Lt Gen Faiz Hameed as the ISI head. Some anchors have quoted the prime minister as saying during the cabinet meeting that he wants General Faiz to continue as the spy chief in view of the Afghanistan situation. This argument does not hold much weight because the institution has enough memory and protocols and the ISI’s policy would remain unchanged after Faiz’s transfer. Furthermore, some analysts say that Imran Khan as prime minister seems least concerned about taking charge of Pakistan’s foreign affairs, and like his predecessors allows the military to take care of foreign policy. The ‘corrupt’ opposition remains the focal point of PM Khan’s attention — to the extent that he attacks his political opponents even during his speeches on international forums.
General Faiz Hameed has repeatedly been named by Nawaz Sharif and Marya m Nawaz who accuse him of helping the PTI gain political strength and carry out political engineering by victimising Imran Khan’s opponents. It is for this reason that the prime minister does not want to lose a DG ISI who enables him to keep the opposition at bay.
Imran Khan’s insistence is understandable because no prime minister who is dependent on unelected forces for his political success would want to lose an officer who helps him strengthen his grip on power. Therefore, his position on the matter of Gen Faiz’s transfer has little to do with civilian supremacy.
It is highly unlikely that a man who (not long ago) proudly told an interviewer that his phone was tapped by the ISI would suddenly become a rebel against the military just because his favourite officer was transferred against his wishes.
It is true that appointment of the ISI chief ought to be made by the PM as per rules of the business of federal government, but PM Khan is not putting up a resistance because he was not duly consulted and his democratic right was violated. He is standing up because the change of leadership at ISI might weaken him, especially his agenda of ‘fixing’ the opposition parties for their alleged corruption in the past. Khan just won an ephemeral victory by extending the tenure of the incumbent NAB Chairman.
When asked about the dismal economic performance and governance failures of the government, many PTI representatives privately say that the prime minister is not able to implement the PTI manifesto because he was never fully allowed to select his own team and that most cabinet members were handpicked by the establishment. If one believes the statement of PTI leader Aamir Dogar that PM Khan is concerned about maintaining the sanctity of the prime minister’s office, then why has Khan allowed the establishment powers to choose his cabinet members?
The PM is standing up to the military because the change of leadership at ISI might weaken his grip on power, especially his agenda of ‘fixing’ the opposition parties for their alleged corruption in the past.
For Imran Khan to become a torchbearer of civilian supremacy, he will first have to admit the role played by powers-that-be before and during the 2018 election. His numerous spokespersons are reminding us of the PM’s authority to appoint the DG ISI, while repeating the ’same page’ mantra in the same breath. Moreover, many stalwarts of the PTI government, if asked to choose between military and the party, are likely to side with the former.
The question now is: how long will this standoff last? Who will cave first?
Given the prime minister’s dependence on the establishment and his style of exercising realpolitik, he understands the limits of his power and is not likely to take on the establishment. He might just approve the appointment of Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum as the new DG ISI after he receives the fresh summary. This would be an appropriate face saver for him, after his futile attempt to stand up to the COAS.
Observers have noted that this episode will push Imran Khan’s relations with the military leadership to a point of no return. His government’s incompetence was being tolerated by the establishment due to Khan’s willingness to share power. Now that he seems to have grown too big for his boots by directly challenging the COAS, it is unlikely that the establishment’s support to the PTI government will be as unconditional as in the past.
Another set of doomsday analysts are suggesting that PM Khan might take drastic steps and that he is in a position to prevail. Even then, the damage has been done.