Pakistan holds its breath for new army chief as Imran Khan stages mass protest
By law, the leader must be changed every three years, and the transfer is always tense. The military has taken power three times since the Muslim-majority country was founded 75 years ago, and it has often manipulated electoral politics behind the scenes. It is only when the prime minister endorses a candidate and the incumbent general passes a bamboo stick to his successor that the nation breathes a sigh of relief.
This time, the tension and the stakes are particularly high. The deadline for installing a new army chief is 10 days away, and a political escalation between Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government and opposition leader Imran Khan, the former prime minister who has was forced to resign in April, polarized the country and threatened to erupt into violence.
“The battle lines are now clearly drawn, making the situation untenable,” Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, wrote in an op-ed this week. Khan, she alleged, is making matters worse by “throwing allegations” at the military, but also privately seeking its support. The looming fear, Lodhi wrote, is that the situation will “snowball into a civil conflict.”
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There were official signals on Friday that the new army chief would be appointed early next week after Shehbaz officially chose from the final candidates, an apparent effort to reassure a nervous public that the transition would be smooth. Defense Minister Khawaja Asif told reporters that while the military has turned “neutral, we should give them respect and get rid of the baggage of 75 years”.
Khan, who was shot in the foot by a gunman while addressing a mass rally on November 3, had delayed his planned “long march” to the capital while he recovers. But on Saturday he announced he would join his supporters in the capital on November 26 – three days before the new army chief takes office – and lead thousands in a mass protest to demand new elections. . For the moment, the demonstrators who arrive are diverted to a hastily erected tent camp in the suburbs, while hundreds of additional security personnel guard the capital.
“We are all eager to start the march. It’s not for fun, it will bring us real freedom,” said Hassan Kayani, 23, a real estate agent sitting in a tent. The Sharif government, he said, has “done nothing for the people, but we love Mr. Khan because he has done so much. We respect the army and we want them to be on the same wavelength as Mr. Khan. And we want the new leader to be chosen for his merit, not to protect corrupt politicians.
The outgoing army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has been a strong advocate of keeping the armed forces out of politics. In many speeches to cadets and military officers, he told them to defend the nation but also to respect civil rule and the constitution. This week, he began making farewell tours of military bases and reiterated his commitment to an on-time retirement.
But Bajwa, 62, has also come under attack from some circles for emphasizing military neutrality. Critics accuse him of retreating from the military’s traditional influence as a broker in civil conflicts, which often stem from corruption or political vendettas. Pakistani politicians of all stripes are still privately seeking military support, and some have reportedly urged the military to stop Khan’s unruly comeback crusade on the streets.
“The power of the army chief is so enormous that he can create a messiah complex,” said Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat who has written extensively about the army. He said Pakistani politicians “often ignore the ground rules” of democracy and seek support from friendly generals, “but that’s still bad for the military as an institution.”
There would be several final candidates among half a dozen senior generals, all with long and accomplished careers. The selection is usually made on the basis of seniority and merit, although in recent weeks there has been an unusual amount of public speculation, much of it online, about the alleged political leanings of various candidates.
The toxic political environment has troubled the armed forces, embroiling them in a civil brawl and leading to accusations of military involvement in the violence, including the October 23 murder of Arshad Sharif, a prominent Pakistani television journalist who was shot dead by police in Kenya, and the attack which injured Khan, although the arrested suspect said he acted alone.
Military officials denied any connection to the attacks, and even the director of Pakistan’s clandestine spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence, who had never spoken in public before, appeared at a conference release after Sharif’s death. In a moving statement, Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum defended the integrity of the army and warned that the “politics of hatred” could destabilize the country.
Anjum’s agency operates with unusual autonomy and has been accused of kidnapping and torturing political dissidents, but he has backed Bajwa’s efforts to move the armed forces ‘from a controversial to a constitutional role’ . He also claimed Khan pressured the military to help him save his job this year through “extraconstitutional means” and asked Bajwa to stay on beyond his three-year term.
Pakistan’s deposed prime minister remains a powerful force
Khan, a maverick politician and former cricket star with a huge fanbase, came to power after campaigning for social justice and against the country’s wealthy elite. Since being forced out of office in a legislative vote of no confidence, he has campaigned tirelessly to return to power, urging rallies of enthusiastic supporters to demand new elections. But Sharif, a leader of the old guard political class, has insisted that elections will not be held until August.
Among Khan’s supporters gathered at the tent camp on Saturday, many criticized the Sharif government as corrupt and indifferent to the poor, but none seemed to bear a grudge against the army, and several said it was important for Khan to patch up its relations with the new leadership of the army. But on Saturday, it remained to be seen how the security forces would react if Khan reached the capital and urged thousands of restless supporters to pour into the streets.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty and concern,” said retired general and intelligence chief Asad Durrani. “Politically, we know we can’t have a hybrid power system, and the military needs to step back. Tactically, if there is unrest, the security forces must be able to contain it, calm the spirits and then discuss. But if the long march gets out of hand, he warned, “a lot of porcelain can be broken”.