Thursday February 02, 2023

Blunders behind Imran govt’s downfall

December 05, 2022

Since Qamar Javed Bajwa has retired as army chief, we should take a look at the factors that caused him to fall out with the Imran government. Following this fallout, the army chief Bajwa-led establishment decided in February 2022 that the institution should become apolitical. This policy is most likely to continue under the new leadership.

PTI Chairman Imran Khan’s relationship with the then establishment is being extensively discussed, but there is little discussion on the issues pertinent to the army at that time. These issues are those that the Imran government failed to address and to which Gen (r) Bajwa repeatedly alluded.

As prime minister Imran Khan was mostly bent upon promoting populist narratives over supporting the army’s strategic calculus and its domestic imperatives. These divergences were in areas of issues falling under the domain of the army because of its expertise in helping determine the country’s strategic direction, foreign policy, and international relations.

The first issue was India. Following the backdoor channel engagement with India, the army agreed to detente on the LoC, which reduced the low-level conflict that had been raging since the first Modi government took over. This caused huge human and material losses. It was achieved after almost a year of Track 2 dialogue between India and Pakistan. This is with some assistance from the UAE. Putting himself in a tight corner, Imran Khan in his public speeches linked any dialogue with the reversal of article 370 abrogation by India.

This is contrary to Pakistan’s long-standing narrative that it was India’s domestic constitutional and political scheme of things and had no material effect on the disputed status of IOK-whether article 370 existed or not. Any negotiations conditional on reversing article 370 would mean returning to the status quo ante. However, when the LoC detente was in place, he approved a summary sanctioning restoring trade with India as commerce minister (since he also held the portfolio of commerce ministry) only to reverse the decision in the cabinet as PM.

As a result of several statements, such as no dialogue if Article 370 was not reversed, the impression developed that it was the army that was desperate for dialogue with India minus IOK.

Yet he was seeking a notional solution to Kashmir before any dialogue, détente, or normalization, thus pretending to stand on high moral ground. His political base loved his narrative. His government did not capitalise on post-370 diplomatic opportunities to meaningfully put India on the back foot. His reiteration was very embarrassing as this put the army in a bad light in the perception domain. Despite acknowledging Covid-19 and economic conditions, he failed to publicly support the army leadership in reducing tension with India and cooling down the LoC.

The second issue he made controversial, and by extension embarrassed the military leadership, was the continuation of the GLOC and ALOC agreements. As the US was about to militarily disengage from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s geopolitical and strategic interests demanded continued financial and diplomatic support from the US for the next Afghan government. The goal was to prevent a repeat of the 1990s when Washington abandoned Afghanistan and left Pakistan alone amid terrorism, refugees, and instability. In the end, there was a need for some engagement with the Biden administration to hedge against any possibility of being punished for its failure in Afghanistan. As a result, the army sought to maintain Air Lines of Communication (ALOC) and Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) access to the US (under the framework of the cooperation agreement in 2001) without granting any basing rights.

Due to this backdrop, Imran Khan viewed signing up for this decision as politically damaging. This is given his history of populist campaigning to block Nato supply lines when he was in opposition. He also dreaded opponents cashing in on the ALOC and GLOC decisions, so he weaponised these issues.

He was also reaching out to President Biden through his NSA, Mooed Yousuf, via the Foreign Office. However, the administration spoke with the then army chief Gen Bajwa through the Pentagon, State Department, and their Charge de Affairs in Islamabad.

There were serious episodes of tension between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan before the recent thawing of relations. The former prime minister also signaled his intention to join a newly-formed bloc. This undermined Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical position in the OIC. The Saudi Arabian government was annoyed by the then foreign minister Shah Mehmood Quarashi’s emotional outburst against Riyadh. Once again, Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia was arranged by the Bajwa after a shuttle diplomacy to calm the government in Riyadh.

Since due to the Army’s relative marginality in narratives on strategic issues, it was the civilian government that was responsible for enlisting public support, and this posed a problem. Instead of supporting the army, Imran Khan carved out a narrative that was only politically convenient to appease supporters.

Imran Khan and Bajwa faced also thorny issues domestically. Among them was the delayed notification of the appointment of DG ISI Gen Nadeem Anjum. In times of grave crises, like Covid-19, the economy, and other issues of government, the army looked to the civilian government and its institutions for help.

For example, there was no hiding from the inefficient administration of CM Buzdar. Ignoring establishment’s concern, Imran Khan believed that CM Buzdar was performing well and should continue in office. This was affecting half of Pakistan’s population and hurting the then establishment.

Another equally concerning issue of the PTI government was the over-representation of KP in its top appointments. This created huge anxiety in the highest echelon negatively affecting the statecraft.

While Imran Khan was vehemently opposed to the prospect of any fallback alternative, i.e. the Shahbaz Sharif card, he abhorred having any communication with the PPP or giving any relief to the opposition against what he believed was an accountability driver. Here again, different interpretations by the then prime minister indicated a tense relationship between him and Bajwa.

Finally, the drift resulted in a split between Imran Khan and Bajwa-led establishment, culminating in his ouster through a no-confidence vote. The rest is history. Gen Asim Munir, the new Army Chief, will hopefully continue the legacy that Bajwa-led establishment set by making the institution apolitical.

Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan, and an ex-adviser to GOB. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai