The weight of the Army Chief’s pronouncements have been subdued by the din of the political farce playing out in Pakistan
The people of Pakistan have yet again found themselves in the midst of a political crisis this past week, with Prime Minister Imran Khan resorting in the face of a no-trust motion tabled by the opposition that he was by all accounts set to lose to dissolve Parliament and call snap elections. The no-trust motion against the Pakistani Prime Minister was dismissed by the Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri just before voting was expected to take place, and he ruled that the motion violated the Constitution and the rules of Pakistan. The stunned Opposition asserted that the Deputy Speaker’s decision was illegal and unconstitutional, as was the subsequent dissolution of Parliament by the President who was beholden to Imran Khan. In a short address to the nation soon thereafter, Imran Khan asked the people of Pakistan to “Get ready for elections” as “The conspiracy to take down this government has collapsed”. In the days leading up to the proposed no-trust vote, Khan had repeatedly alleged that the United States (US) was involved in an “international conspiracy” to oust his government. After the dissolution of Parliament, Khan announced that general elections would be held within 90 days. He later appointed a former Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court as the interim Prime Minister till the elections.
Terming this entire process unconstitutional, Opposition lawmakers refused to leave the premises of Parliament House and initiated a string of legal challenges against Khan’s machinations. Legal luminaries seemed to concur with the Opposition’s assertions, with leading constitutional lawyer Salman Akram Raja saying that the “entire procedure by the Deputy Speaker and the advice by the premier to dissolve the assembly was unconstitutional”. Ahsan Bhoon, President of the Supreme Court Bar, went a step further and insisted that the actions of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Speaker were against the Constitution and “they should be prosecuted for treason under Article 6 of the Constitution”. He appealed to the Chief Justice to take suo moto action against what he described as gross illegality.
In news that broke as this Commentary was being written, Pakistan’s Supreme Court on 7 April ruled the dismissal by the Deputy Speaker of the no-trust motion as “unconstitutional”. Under Article 58 of Pakistan's Constitution, the National Assembly cannot be dissolved if there is a no-confidence motion against the government. The Supreme Court verdict reconstituted the National Assembly and ordered the Speaker to call a session and hold the no-trust vote at 10 am on 9 April. With this development, Imran Khan will in all likelihood become the first Pakistani Prime Minister to be removed through a no-trust vote.
While these latest political maneuverings in Pakistan are noteworthy, they are essentially a manifestation of the constant bickering that has long characterized the country’s polity, which has resulted in a virtual game of musical chairs that seems to play out endlessly. They are also a reflection of the souring of the relationship between the country’s all powerful military establishment and Imran Khan, whom the former had installed after the 2018 general elections as part of a “hybrid government” in which the establishment and Khan’s government gave the impression of working harmoniously together even though the real strings were being pulled by Rawalpindi.
For the establishment, Khan proved to be a disappointment whom the army needed to distance itself from. Khan’s increasing unpredictability, waywardness, exaggerated self-image, obsession with remaining in power even at the cost of important relationships and priorities, and his deviation from what the establishment visualized as being in the best interests of Pakistan forced the Generals to take it upon themselves to get into damage control mode. In doing so, the establishment sought to assuage public opinion and comfort the international community, especially the US and other Western partners, but also India, that at a juncture when Khan, with his shallow comprehension of both domestic equations and of how the world worked was putting the country’s global position at risk, it was Pakistan’s military that would be the one to step in as the ultimate guarantor of the country’s credibility and outreach.
While the unfolding political developments, spicy, sensational, and fast moving as they were, took up much of the imagination and the print space in Pakistan in recent days, they also had the effect of stymying due attention from a speech of much higher and wider importance that had been delivered by Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa on 2 April, just a day before the no-trust motion was originally scheduled to be voted upon. His speech, delivered at the two-day Islamabad Security Dialogue that brought together Pakistani and international policy experts to discuss emerging challenges in international security under the theme ‘Comprehensive Security: Reimagining International Cooperation’, was a pointed attempt to temper the damage wreaked by Khan’s recent unguarded pronouncements that portrayed the US and other Western partners as sworn enemies of Pakistan who meant no good. Bajwa also sought to dispel the impression given out by Khan that Pakistan had chosen to unequivocally side with Russia, and not the West, over the invasion of Ukraine, and that given the extremely close ties that Islamabad had developed with Beijing, the US and the West did not really matter that much for Pakistan anymore. However, as will be brought out in succeeding paragraphs, the most significant things that Bajwa said related to Pakistan’s relations with India, into which equation he also brought in China’s aggressive actions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India.
At the Islamabad event in which 17 speakers from China, Russia, the US, the United Kingdom (UK), the European Union (EU), Japan, and other countries participated, Bajwa stressed that relations with the US and European, Gulf, and Southeast Asian countries were vital for Pakistan’s development and progress. On South Asia, he underlined that it was regions and not countries that grow, adding that “We believe that peace and stability in our wider region are prerequisites for achieving shared regional prosperity and development. Our doors are open for all our neighbours”.
On ties with the US, Bajwa’s position was in stark contrast to that taken by Imran Khan, during whose term ties with Washington had steadily deteriorated amidst Khan’s accusation that the US was punishing him for his so-called “independent” foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia and China. Bajwa took a much more pragmatic line in his speech and said that Islamabad had always had “excellent and strategic” relations and collaboration with the US, and that the country was “Pakistan’s largest export market”. He balanced this by saying that Pakistan valued China’s friendship equally, adding that “We seek to broaden and expand our ties with both countries without impacting our relations with the other”. Bajwa’s statements were a clear signal that the military was keen to repair ties with America, and it is likely that the government that will take over from Imran Khan will make that a priority.
Bajwa, unlike Khan, also spoke in favour of better relations with the EU and the UK. Khan had lashed out at a letter written by EU envoys to Pakistan asking it to side with the West and condemn the Russian aggression of Ukraine. Speaking at a public rally, Khan had reacted by saying that Pakistan would never be a “slave to anyone”. The stand on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that Bajwa took also contrasted sharply with what Khan had been saying, and it reflected a keener appreciation of the Western position. The Army Chief described the Russian invasion as a “huge tragedy that must be stopped immediately”, and cautioned that the conflict could “easily get out of hand”. He lamented that “half of Ukraine has been destroyed’’, thousands of people had been killed in the war, and millions of Ukrainians have had to flee the country. Stressing that the continuation or expansion of the conflict in Ukraine will not serve the interests of any side, Bajwa made it a point to underline that Pakistan enjoyed excellent defence and economic relations with Ukraine, but with Russia the country had “cold relations for a long time” though there were “some positive developments” recently.
Betraying the Pakistani military establishment’s real concern and insecurity over the implications of the war in Ukraine, something that Imran Khan seemed to have ignored completely, Bajwa said, “Furthermore, despite legitimate security concerns of Russia, its aggression against a smaller country cannot be condoned. Pakistan has consistently called for an immediate ceasefire and cessation of hostilities. We support immediate dialogue between all sides to find a lasting solution to the conflict”. Continuing with this theme, the Army Chief opined that the conflict in Ukraine was giving hope to smaller countries that they could still defend their territory with smaller but agile forces against aggression by a larger country by carrying out selective modernization of equipment.
Turning to Afghanistan, Bajwa stressed that while the world, especially the West, was preoccupied with the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine, it must not lose sight of the 40 million Afghans who faced terrible conditions as an inability to address the issue would “not only lead to a refugee crisis but will again make Afghanistan an epicentre of terrorism where the Islamic State with its global agenda flourishes and may result in more than one 9/11”. His line of argument on Afghanistan was more akin to that of Imran Khan in as much as while both made a grim prognosis for the country, neither displayed the courage to own up to Pakistan’s complicity in bringing such a hopeless situation about. Bajwa spoke of the dismal performance of the Taliban government, adding that “Pakistan shares some of the concerns of the international community”. He chose to gloss over the fact that Pakistan has long been the benefactor and patron of the Taliban, so much so that the terrorist group would never have re-taken Kabul without Pakistan’s active support. Furthermore, the Taliban government that Bajwa described as being inadequate had actually been stitched together by none other than his intelligence chief. Bajwa putting the onus of stabilizing Afghanistan upon the West, therefore, came across as lame when the Pakistani military establishment has displayed absolutely no desire or intent to prevent the Taliban from imposing one draconian law after the other.
As mentioned afore, in the context of peace and stability in South Asia, Bajwa’s most pertinent and encouraging remarks related to relations with neighbouring India. His assertion that “Pakistan continues to believe in using dialogue and diplomacy to resolve all outstanding issues including the Kashmir dispute and is ready to move forward on this front if India agrees to do so” is significant, if only it is sincere. The significance of Bajwa’s statement was bolstered considerably by his suggestion of broader regional peace involving China. His hint of a trilateral dialogue involving India, Pakistan and China to create an inclusive peace across the region was new and meaningful. Bajwa said that apart from the Kashmir issue, the India-China border dispute was also a matter of great concern for Pakistan, adding that “we want it to be settled quickly through dialogue and diplomacy. I believe it is time for the political leadership of the region to rise above their emotional and perceptual biases and break the shackles of history to bring peace and prosperity to almost three billion people of the region”.
These suggestions of the Pakistani Army Chief, when seen in the context of his statement on the enduring ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) with India seem to suggest that the back-channel dialogue between Indian and Pakistani interlocuters, most likely representatives of the intelligence agencies of the two countries, are not only continuing but also making some headway. On the LoC, Bajwa said, “Towards the east, the situation along the Line of Control (LoC) is satisfactory and fairly peaceful. Mercifully we have not seen any major incident along the LoC since last one year, which has brought great relief to the people living along both sides of the LoC”.
This is not the first time that the Army Chief has publicly advocated peace with India. He had made similar comments at the same forum last year, when he had said that it was time for both countries to “bury the past and move forward”. In the Pakistani context, what is really significant is that the advocacy for peace is coming from the most powerful figure in the military establishment.
Commenting on Bajwa’s statements at last year’s Islamabad Security Dialogue, Pakistani author and research associate at SOAS, London, Ayesha Siddiqa had opined a year ago that “Perhaps, it will help to engage in some more backchannel deliberations to further understand the exact markers regarding expectations and possibilities. India and Pakistan have begun to talk but they have not arrived at the moment when it becomes possible to imagine anchoring peace”.
One year down the line, with the frivolous Imran Khan out of the way and with the prospect of a more seasoned and grounded leader taking political centerstage in the coming days to complement the establishment’s efforts, it just may be possible, and it certainly would be desirable, that the time to “imagine anchoring peace” has finally arrived.