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Pakistan Army Stares At Another Defeat

By Shekhar Gupta
November 21, 2022 08:19 IST
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The Pakistan army is staring at the greatest, scariest, existential threat to its power in their country.
This threat has come from a populist riding democratic power, observes Shekhar Gupta.

IMAGE: General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who retires as Pakistan's army chief on November 30, 2022.

Since its founding, Pakistan's mighty army has built a consistent record of launching wars on India and losing. It is a record of unblemished consistency.

There is, however, another battlefield where it has an equally consistent record of winning.

Which is where it is staring at defeat. We will elaborate on this in just a bit.

On fighting and losing wars with India, there will obviously be some nitpicking.

The tough fact is, after so many wars, this army has lost almost half of Pakistan (Bangladesh), destroyed its polity, institutions, economy, entrepreneurship, and driven out its talent.

Finally, it has even less of Kashmir (think Siachen) than it started out with.

So where is it that its record of winning has been equally consistent and it is now on the retreat?

Check out the press conference by Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, the serving chief of the almighty Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), that vanquished the Soviet and American powers, KGB and CIA, in Afghanistan.

Chaperoned by Lieutenant General Babar Iftikhar, the chief of Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR), he spoke for nearly an hour-and-a-half.

All of this is invested in defending himself, the ISI, his chief and the army.

 

Now, never mind that Elon Musk has stolen that metaphor for posterity, please allow us also to use it: Let that sink in.

This is the ISI that all of Pakistan both loved and feared, friend and foe held in awe.

It only had to wink, nod and sometimes nudge and almost all of the Pakistani media would fall in line.

If you didn't, you might end up in jail, exile, a corpse in a gutter or in a strange land.

In some cases, all of these. Think Arshad Sharif, the former ARY anchor.

He was fired, exiled as was his boss. Sharif turned up dead in Kenya, apparently shot by the police on mistaken identity.

If you believe that, you must be very high on something totally illegal.

Now we had its chief, institutionally among the most powerful men in the world any time, at a press conference with a hand-picked friendly audience (most of the respected publications were excluded).

Usually his word and his chief's was an order for Pakistan's media, politicians, often also the judiciary. The chief of ISPR was usually his messenger.

Now, both of them, speaking on behalf of their institution, were claiming victimhood.

When the Pakistani army goes to the media complaining about a political leader who they obviously fear, and who they are complaining about for maligning or defaming them, you know that its politics has taken a historic turn.

Pakistan's army is quite used to scrapping with its political class and consistently winning.

Now it fears defeat at the hands of its politicians too.

To that extent, Imran Khan might be on the verge of achieving a victory which would mean even more in political terms than his team's cricket World Cup win in 1992.

If the Pakistani army can finally be defeated by a popular, if populist, civilian force, it's a history-defining moment for the subcontinent.

It's history defining because an institution that was never denied its supreme power except for a few years after the 1971 defeat is now seeking public support with its back to the wall under a politician's onslaught.

All this while its word was a command for any government of the day, and it could hire, fire, jail, exile or murder prime ministers serving, former and prospective.

To understand how that works, you do not have to go far.

IMAGE: Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan, who was wounded following a shooting incident during his long march in Wazirabad, at the Shaukat Khanum memorial cancer hospital and research centre in Lahore, November 4, 2022. Photograph: Mohsin Raza/Reuters

In 2007, it looked as if Benazir Bhutto was on the ascendant, after her return from her second long exile (the first return was in 1986 which I had covered in a cover story for India Today from Pakistan).

She was assassinated despite so many warnings that her life was endangered. Nobody has been punished yet.

It's buried in Pakistan's history of conspiracies and eternal mysteries like so many others.

Her party's government wasn't allowed to function freely and her husband reduced into an inconsequential, titular president subsequently.

Nawaz Sharif came back with a comfortable majority and grew 'delusional' from his army's viewpoint that he was a real prime minister.

By 2018, this army, under a chief he had appointed, conspired and contrived to get rid of him, jail and exile him, ensuring his party didn't get a majority.

In the process, they also built, strengthened and employed Pakistan's most regressive Sunni Islamist group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik.

Imran Khan was then the army's candidate, and does it matter if he fell short of majority either?

The army and the ISI collected enough small parties and independents to give him a comfortable majority.

Albeit at their sufferance. A majority was no issue for one seen as the boy of the boys.

Until, this 'boy' also began to believe that he was a real prime minister.

What's worse, his new delusions weren't just domestic.

He also began to see himself as the new leader of the Islamic Ummah, a 21st Century Caliph of sorts in his own right.

He was now talking in Shariat terms, building a new agenda that was as Islamist as it was anti-West.

IMAGE: Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, director general, ISI, left, and Lieutenant General Babar Iftikhar, spokesperson of Pakistan's armed forces, address a press conference in Islamabad, October 27, 2022.

Both of these alarmed the army. In the same state of political 'high', Mr Khan started to believe he now actually controlled the army.

That's how the first, and decisive fights broke out over top-level appointments.

The first fight was over the appointment of the new ISI chief.

The army chief had his way with Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum and Mr Khan lost out over his insistence on continuing with Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed.

This fight was, however, like a crucial league match before the final, appointment of the new chief in November.

Think about what is the one thread that's common to this entire ugly story loaded with intrigue, betrayal and now it seems assassination too?

General Qamar Javed Bajwa has been the chief through all of these years.

Appointed by Nawaz Sharif who he had fired and exiled, given a three-year extension by Mr Khan who he had first created and now got fired, and now challenged by him.

Over the past five decades, two great political families have fought for democracy in Pakistan in their own different ways, although mostly by keeping the army GHQ on their sides.

Both of these, the Bhuttos' Pakistan People's Party and the Sharifs' Pakistan Muslim League are now tired and spent forces.

One because of its shrinking footprint from Punjab, and the other because its only popular leader and founder Nawaz Sharif is hesitant to leave the comfort of exile in London and join the fight at home.

Both are counting on the army to save their throne and skins now.

This was the default formula for usual times. If the army was on your side, the world was yours in Pakistan.

The reason these aren't usual times is that today it is the army that's staring at the greatest, scariest, existential threat to its power in their country.

This threat has come from a populist riding democratic power.

So what if it's that often nutty Imran Khan. Did we ever argue democracy is perfect?

By special arrangement with The Print

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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