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EFSAS Commentary

The saga of General Bajwa’s extension and the erosion of the sheen of the Pakistani Military Establishment


The Broadway-worthy spectacle that played out in the Pakistani Supreme Court over the last 4 days on the weighty matter of the extension of the tenure of Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa was not an off-the-cuff or sudden development. It had been in the making for some time now. The uncharacteristic and growing vulnerability of the Pakistani military establishment had been underlined in the EFSAS Commentary of 08-11-2019, 'Pakistan's triple M: Maulana, March & Military'. An emboldened judiciary, one of the principal characters in the power play that churns within Pakistan, was not going to let go of a timely and rather succulent opportunity to put both the military establishment and its political proxy, Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan, in their place. The judiciary eventually chose not to deliver the decisive blow, which it well could have. It opted instead for the pragmatic path of skirting all out confrontation, and potentially forceful retribution, and cleverly restricted itself to announcing its, and especially Chief Justice (CJ) Asif Saeed Khosa’s, arrival as a consequential player on the chess-board of power. 

In a decision that was widely portrayed by Pakistani analysts as a payback for the exalted position of Prime Minister that General Bajwa had helped Imran Khan ascend to, Khan on 19 August had approved another tenure of 3 years for the COAS beyond his present term that came to an end on 29 November. There was nothing uncommon or noteworthy about the development because Army Chiefs in Pakistan have routinely given themselves extensions of tenure on one ground or the other, mostly without justification, as the Supreme Court also observed during the deliberations on General Bajwa’s extension. In the last 2 decades, General Raheel Sharif is the only Army Chief to have retired on time. Intriguingly, therefore, just 3 days before the extension a 3-member Supreme Court Bench headed by CJ Khosa took up a petition filed by an obscure Pakistani entity called, The Jurists Foundation, challenging the extension of General Bajwa's tenure. 

It was, consequently, quite evident that some teamwork and coordination between one or more of the 23-odd Pakistani Major Generals and Lieutenant Generals whose career progression would have been adversely impacted by General Bajwa’s extension, and Pakistan’s legal community, which is angry over the presidential reference filed against two judges of the Supreme Court for unaccounted funds based on evidence collected and collated by the Prime Minister Asset Recovery Unit (ARU), was behind the extraordinary and, in the Pakistani context sensational, move to challenge the extension. Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqua described it thus – “The unhappiness in the various institutions at the informal power that the Army Chief has acquired... may have brought different institutional forces together to challenge the extension”

The Pakistani military has traditionally had an overpoweringly influential hold over the country and its security and foreign policy. Its vice-like hold, however, seems to be eroding rather rapidly in recent times, as the challenge of the extension demonstrated. Things have reached such a pass that even the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) held a countrywide strike of lawyers on 28 November in protest against the “unconstitutional” efforts of the Imran Khan government to extend the Army Chief’s tenure. 

Prime Minister Khan added the final fuel to the fire by recently tactlessly criticizing the judiciary for allowing the ailing former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, incarcerated for financial impropriety, to travel abroad for medical treatment. Khan urged the judiciary to “restore public trust by ending the impression of favouring the powerful against the poor”. CJ Khosa was apparently not content with merely warning Prime Minister Khan to “be careful” with his statements and refrain from “taunting” the judiciary, and to bear in mind that the judiciary had already “convicted a Prime Minister (Nawaz Sharif) and disqualified another Prime Minister (Yousuf Raza Gilani)”. Khosa and the other two Judges went on to ridicule and humiliate the ineptitude of Imran Khan’s government during the hearings on Bajwa’s extension and sought to project that it was the government that was unequivocally responsible for bringing the extension into doubt.    

On the first day of the hearings into Bajwa’s extension on 26 November, CJ Khosa and his bench raised questions on the elementary lacunae in the legal provisions, the procedure adopted, and the rationale proffered by the government for approving Bajwa’s extension. The Supreme Court noted that the government could not refer to any provision in any legal instrument regarding extension in service of the Army Chief upon completion of his first term for his re-appointment. Their incisive probe revealed that PM Imran Khan approved the extension on 19 August, without taking his Cabinet into confidence. The approval of the Cabinet was taken subsequently as an afterthought. After the purported approval of the Cabinet the matter was never sent to the Prime Minister or the President again for the purposes of a fresh advice or a fresh order. Moreover, of the 25 Cabinet Ministers, only 11 had formally approved the extension and the government had assumed the silence of the remaining 14 as their assent. The President of Pakistan, who constitutionally is the authority that can grant an extension to the Army Chief on the advice of the Prime Minister, was not even consulted and hence had not signed on the formal notification. 

Further, CJ Khosa pointed out that “The learned Attorney-General of Pakistan has, however, very candidly submitted before us that in the entire body of laws pertaining to the Pakistan army, there is no express provision available regarding re-appointment or extension in the service of a Chief of the Army Staff”. Adding that, “The attorney general could not present any legal reason for an extension in tenure”, Khosa described the stated purpose for the proposed extension, the “regional security environment”, as “quite vague… If at all there is any regional security threat, then it is the gallant armed forces of the country as an institution which are to meet the said threat and an individual’s role in that regard may be minimal. If the said reason is held to be correct and valid then every person serving in the armed forces would claim re-appointment/extension in his service on the basis of the said reason”. Significantly, the Chief Justice ruled that “General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of the Army Staff is hereby made a respondent to this petition and the office is directed to carry out the necessary addition in the memorandum of this petition. In the meanwhile, the operation of the impugned order/notification in respect of extension/re-appointment of General Qamar Javed Bajwa in the said office shall remain suspended”

Smarting from the chastisement at the Supreme Court, within hours of the suspension of the extension Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Dr. Arif Alvi approved a fresh notification for the extension of the COAS. The Cabinet also cancelled the previous three-year extension order of the COAS signed by Prime Minister Khan on 19 August and issued a fresh extension order. Shortly after the Cabinet’s approval, PM Khan signed the extension order and the President was finally granted the opportunity to give his formal assent. 

These hurried measures, however, were also torn apart by the Supreme Court bench at the hearing on the following day, 27 November. CJ Khosa observed that each of the three summaries of the President, Prime Minister and Cabinet contained different viewpoints. While the Prime Minister had requested for Bajwa’s reappointment, the President had issued a notification for extension in the Army Chief's tenure. Khosa derided the government and sought to drive a wedge between the Prime Minister and the Army Chief. He thundered, “What kind of laws are being made? They are not suitable even for the appointment of an assistant commissioner [a fairly junior officer]… Army officers are respectable but the law ministry, with its erroneous documentation, has attempted to disrespect them. You have turned the Army Chief into a shuttlecock. You should have the degrees of those people examined who are responsible for drafting these documents. There is still time. The government should step back and assess what it is doing. They should not do something like this with a high-ranking officer”. The CJ did not spare the army either. When the Attorney General sought to justify the extension by highlighting the sacrifices that the officers who join the army are required to make by saying that “The oath of an army officer says that they would lay down their lives if need be. This is a very significant thing”, Justice Khosa, alluding to the Pakistan Army’s incessant and notorious record of meddling in the political sphere, delivered the acerbic retort that “‘I will never involve myself in any political activities. This sentence is also part of the oath. It is a very good thing to stay away from political activities”. 

After holding General Bajwa and PM Khan on tenterhooks over three days of hearings during which the bench repeatedly threatened to scuttle the extension, it eventually delivered its verdict on the matter on the afternoon of 28 November, just hours before General Bajwa’s retirement at midnight on the same day. The order said, “The federal government has presented this court with a recent summary approved by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister along with a notification dated 28.11.2019 which shows that General Qamar Javed Bajwa has been appointed as COAS under Article 243(4)(b) of the Constitution with effect from 28.11.2019. The current appointment of General Qamar Javed Bajwa as COAS shall be subject to the said legislation and shall continue for a period of six months from today, whereafter the new legislation shall determine his tenure and other terms and conditions of service”. 

While this verdict has, at least for the moment, breathed life into PM Khan and General Bajwa, that a petition challenging the Army Chief’s extension was entertained by the Supreme Court, and the manner in which it was heard, could herald a change in the power dynamics in Pakistan in the immediate term. The army’s image has taken a beating. The fact that its Chief has been dragged through a court case involving his own extension and made a party to it would definitely impact not only upon the morale of the forces, but also the way the average Pakistani views the army. As Pakistani analyst Imad Zafar put it on 26 November, prior to the verdict, “Even if the government reissues the notice of General Bajwa’s extension, the damage is already done, as this is the first time a powerful military chief’s extension of tenure has being suspended by the court. After this, General Bajwa’s extension has become controversial, and to try and save the honor of the institution he represents, he should not accept the extension. But then this is Pakistan, where no one likes to give up power until it is snatched from him”. An editorial in the Pakistani daily Dawn, similarly, said on 28 November, “This is without a doubt the most shambolic episode in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government's tenure so far. Surely there are other officers more than capable of leading the army. General Bajwa's next step will determine whether he is thinking of himself or his institution”

Although seemingly unrelated, another current issue that is likely to adversely impact on the Pakistani leadership, both civil and military, in times to come is its deafening silence on the Uyghurs issue despite the excesses and grave violations of human rights that have been exposed recently by ‘The China Cables’. This tacit acceptance by Pakistan of the atrocities being committed by the Chinese government against fellow Muslims in Xinjiang is highly perverse and hypocritical. Other countries such as Malaysia, and groupings such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which have been supportive of the Pakistani position on the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) issue on the basis of religious affinity, are equally guilty of double standards in abandoning the Uyghurs to their plight at the hands of the Chinese. 

Nevertheless, Pakistan stands out for taking its silence to extreme levels. Not only has the Pakistani government not said a word in reaction to ‘The China Cables’, the Pakistani military establishment has also placed a total gag on the Pakistani media on reporting on the subjugation and humiliation of fellow Muslims in immediately neighbouring Xinjiang. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) enters Pakistan through this Chinese province, so it cannot possibly feign ignorance on what is transpiring there, as Imran Khan often chooses to do. 

Pakistan’s silence serves to demonstrate the totally subservient status that the country has accepted vis-à-vis China, and also that the yearning for the Yuan trumps principles, no matter how basic or vital. It also proves that Pakistan’s criticism of India’s 5 August moves in J&K is nothing but crocodile tears.

Above all, it leaves no doubt about the fact that Pakistan’s interest in J&K is limited to its territory, not its inhabitants, no matter what their religion.