Lt Gen Iftikhar Babar, Director General of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) and Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum, Director-General of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) surprised the Pakistani political and the strategic classes and the media by holding a joint press conference on 27 October. This was because ISI officers, like those of other intelligence services, do not give open press briefings either singly or jointly with others.
The clear purpose of the media conference was to defend the role of the army, especially its chief, General Qamar Bajwa, during the extraordinary political turbulence that has gripped Pakistan since March this year. The ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan and his colleagues in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) have cast aspersions on the part played by the army in ousting Khan and the formation of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) led by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif.
Pakistan Military's Continued Claim of Being 'Apolitical'
On its part, the army has maintained, right from the beginning of the political crisis that it has remained ‘apolitical’. At the media conference Iftikhar and Anjum reiterated this point repeatedly: that the army was apolitical and had decided to confine itself to its mandated constitutional role. The generals emphasised that this was not Bajwa’s individual decision but that of the army as an institution. Anjum went to the extent of saying that those officers who could potentially lead the army over ’10-15’ years were on board with this decision.
The PTI leadership, though, has asked that if the army was now apolitical why was it necessary for the generals to hold the press conference for it was essentially a political exercise. This point was valid. While defending Bajwa, Anjum vehemently criticised Khan even though he did not take his name. Indeed, the media conference has openly pitted it against Khan.
This is now the real play in Pakistan’s national life; the PDM-PTI contest has to be refracted almost completely through this prism. Khan is blowing hot and cold against the army. Though, he is insisting that his criticism is constructive.
What Does An Apolitical Army Mean in Pakistan?
What no Pakistani has asked till now is this: what does the army actually mean when it claims that it will henceforth confine its activities to those envisaged in the Pakistani constitution? For that matter, nor has the army clarified what does it precisely mean when it says so.
Obviously, at a minimum, the army’s claims should indicate that it would not stage coups against elected governments, as it has done in the past. An apolitical role should also imply that it will not intervene in the political process; that it would have no favourites whom it would seek to place into the Prime Minister’s chair and, at the same time, oust, as it has done till now, those who have crossed its path. Is this possible?
The Pakistan army is both a professional and a political force. That has been its nature till now and it will not be easy for it to change, notwithstanding the generals’ assertions.
There is another aspect, too. Pakistani politicians, on their part, also seek its support to promote their own interests: it will not be easy for them to change too. Thus, there has been a symbiotic relationship between the army and the political class and this relationship. It will be hard to end this relationship.
Can Pakistan Army 'Allow' Politicians to Appoint the Chiefs?
A truly significant aspect of becoming apolitical also relates to the realm of policy. In all democratic countries the armed forces are controlled by the elected political leadership. That is also prescribed in Pakistan’s constitution. Article 243 states “The Federal Government shall have control and command of the Armed Forces”. Article 244 provides that the Chiefs are to be appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. And, members of the armed forces have to take an oath to “uphold” the constitution.
Except for allowing Prime Ministers to appoint a new Chief from a list of eligible officers sent by the army itself, the army has, till now, never allowed the elected government to have any role in the appointments of officers or any internal matter of the army.
In fact, Khan and Bajwa fell out because the former protested against the removal by the latter, in October 2021, of the then DG ISI Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. Does becoming apolitical mean that the army will now allow the political leadership to intervene in appointments of senior army officers or keep the army as a closed shop under the control of the Chief?
Will Pakistan Army Stop Being Ideological?
The Pakistan army has always conceived itself to be the both the defender of country’s territories as of its ideology. If it claims that is has decided to become apolitical, would it now leave the politicians to take decisions on ideological issues? This is a crucial question because in all democratic polities the armed forces are kept immune from ideological contestations. Is this possible in Pakistan?
The Pakistan army has always insisted that it is should have full sway over the country’s security, strategic and critical foreign policies. Politicians may give inputs, ministers may seek to give the illusion of making policies, but it is the army which decides even if it is so sometimes behind the curtain. Indeed, Corps Commanders conferences which in most countries are routine affairs and seldom attract media attention are not so in Pakistan because the generals do not confine their discussions only to security and internal army matters.
The role of the armed forces has been given an institutional sanction in the National Security Council (NSC) which is the highest decision-making body relating to the country’s security. While the Prime Minister chairs the NSC the forces’ chiefs and the ministers are on par in the body.
India Model Is Simply Too Much For Pakistan Army
In India, on the other hand, the chiefs—like civil servants—are at the disposal of the National Security Council or the Cabinet Committee on Security. They are not members of these bodies. Sometimes, after they have given their views, the ministers under the leadership of the Prime Minister confer among themselves without the presence of advisors and officials. This is because they are ultimately responsible for decisions and are accountable to the people through Parliament.
Will the Pakistani army now allow the politicians to decide on security and strategic and foreign policy issues and implement the decisions taken? That would be the true meaning of becoming apolitical but it is doubtful if that is what the Pakistani generals have in mind.
The fact is, as Imran Khan told the Oxford Union on 25 October, Pakistan became a security state soon after it came into being and there has been no balance between the military and the democratic government. That balance in policy matters cannot be achieved so long as Pakistan remains a “security state”. And, it will so remain as long as it considers India as a permanent enemy.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)