Is Pakistan’s army losing its clout?

Political manoeuvrings are reaching fever pitch in Pakistan over the slated retirement of army chief General Qasim Jawed Bajwa at the end of the month and there’s a flood of rumours about which of four generals is most likely to succeed him. There was also a flurry of speculation Bajwa might delay his ride into the sunset. But that possibility was dealt a death blow this week by media claims about how his family members and relatives have become billionaires in the six years he’s been army chief.

Amidst this deluge of speculative talk is the very real fact that former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ‘Azadi March’ is poised to enter Rawalpindi, the army’s headquarters town on November 26. Khan has been spewing venom against the government that’s climbed stratospherically since the assassination attempt on him. Did the cricketer-turned politician really get four bullets in the leg? If yes, he’s lucky to be walking, let alone continuing his march.

On Tuesday, the government made clear it’s readying a warm-to-boiling-hot reception for Khan. A court case has been filed against him for undervaluing a $2-million Graff watch presented to him by Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Six days ago, a Dubai-based businessman stepped forward to claim a friend of Khan’s wife sold him the watch, which should have been handed over to the ‘toshakhana’, the rightful home for such gifts. It looks likely details about more gifts to Khan that didn’t make it to the toshakhana will now emerge.

Khan broke one of Pakistan’s key political tenets by attacking the army. At some point, his relations with Bajwa collapsed, probably over ISI chief Faiz Hameed who Khan wanted to line up as the next army chief. Now Hameed’s the one person who’s almost certainly out of the race. Incidentally, it’s still a close-run race, but the smart money is on Lt-Gen Asim Munir, the army’s most senior officer. Prime Minister Shebhaz Sharif is expected to name the new commander by Friday.

There was a time when attacking the army was a deadly taboo in Pakistan. But that’s changed in recent years. There’s talk about a split in the army ranks, primarily over real-estate dealings. Every officer who reaches Major General or Lt-Gen rank gets huge monetary and real-estate benefits on retirement. Changing public attitudes towards the army became clear after the Khan assassination attempt when, in Peshawar, his supporters even raised anti-army slogans in front of the corps commander’s house. Where does India come into all this?

India’s position

Bajwa has been in the top job for six years now and the no-war, no-peace situation has held as well as possible. Was this because of what’s called the Bajwa Doctrine or have other factors come into play? Most Pakistani analysts reckon Bajwa deserves the credit, even more than Khan.

Whatever the reasons, the last half-dozen years have been ones of relative peace — even after Pulwama and Balakot. The number of cross-border firings were low in 2021, a trend that has continued into 2022. Bear in mind too that Pakistan is furious about the abolition of Article 370 and could have easily stirred trouble in the Kashmir Valley. True, there have been occasional shootings but no large-scale attacks.

Could it be that India has agreed to maintain a low Afghanistan profile in exchange for Pakistan keeping terrorist activity in Kashmir to a minimum? We shut our consulate in Jalalabad in 2020 and haven’t reopened it. Was there a deal? That’s one question sometimes raised. There was also the reopening of Nankana Sahib for Sikh pilgrims, though that was always a low-hanging fruit Pakistan was keener on than we were. Strikingly though, the deal was signed November 26, the date of the Mumbai attack. Was this an Indian message that the Modi government was putting the attack behind it in India-Pakistan relations?

Despite these developments, one key point is that India-Pakistan trade hasn’t improved in the slightest. The overwhelming feeling is the army is against any trade openings.

Keep in mind, all this infighting is taking place in the midst of a string of staggering financial hits. Barely a few months ago Pakistan was reeling under the worst floods in its history that halved its economic growth, displaced millions and caused billions of dollars in damages.

Many years ago, Pakistani commentator Ahmed Rashid titled his book,  Pakistan on the Brink. Since then, Pakistan has gazed down from the edge of the precipice with increasingly regularity. We can only hope that it doesn’t lose its footing.