Past, present, forever By Arifa Noor

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IN the ghissa pitta (worn-out) plot twists that keep gracing Pakistani politics, the appointment of senior military officials is a special favourite. In the famous and prophetic words of Imran Khan, which are doing the rounds these days in a viral video clip, rulers want to turn the premier intelligence agency into the Punjab ‘puls’(police). This is true in as far as most rulers want to influence the appointments based on their preferences for individuals. But there is more to this overreach than simply a tendency to control appointments.

As someone once said, insightfully, that regardless of how an army chief is selected and by whomever, once he is in the hotspot, he is the head of a 550,000 strong military. And this is the constituency he looks to eventually and not those who may have helped him get there.

And this is the analysis which also applies to the prime minister of Pakistan. Regardless of how he or she gets there, and by whose help, once he/she takes the oath, he/she is the elected leader of a large and relatively important country. This awareness, as well as the power, the position enjoys on paper is what leads to the clash with the man who wields power which bears little resemblance to what the legal position is.

So, from Benazir Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif to now Imran Khan, their decision-making is shaped by their position, as much are the choices of the chief of army staff from the 1990s to the present. In other words, conflict is inherent to the relationship and is not simply due to the personalities of the prime ministers, as the common analysis goes.

Everyone gawping at the one page being ripped up is guilty of a wee exaggeration.

And this clash can and does happen over selection of officials, governance matters — which are occasionally termed corruption matters, disingenuously — and at times even foreign policy especially towards India. And if not these, then it would be something else.

It is this larger context which is at play at the moment too, with the stalemate over the appointment of the DG ISI and Imran Khan’s intransigence, where it appears that the prime minister does not want the incumbent to move on for the time being (though in more colourful language it may be more apt to use the Urdu phrase involving an invitation to the bull to take a swipe).

But in this he is not alone. Consider BB’s choice to appoint a retired general in her first term; Nawaz Sharif’s choice of an ISI head whose elevation to chief on Oct 12, 1999, led to a coup; and even Asif Ali Zardari’s half-hearted attempt to place the ISI under the interior ministry. Khan does not appear all that different from his predecessors.

But here it also needs to be said that everyone gawping and swooning at the one page being ripped up is guilty of a wee exaggeration. Despite the close relationship between the PTI and the military, this is hardly the first time the two sides have not been BFFs. After all, for months there has been speculation about Punjab and its chief minister, with multiple predictions about a new government simply to get rid of Usman Buzdar — allegedly all at the behest of Pindi wallahs. Earlier, it was said the departure of Nawaz Sharif to London had sent Khan sulking to Banigala for a long weekend. And earlier this year, there was evidence of their differing views on relations with India.

Though of course, this is the first occasion where Khan has dared to ‘meddle’ with institutional matters, which as Nawaz Sharif learnt in 1999 is the red line no civilian is allowed to cross, even as they pick fights with the media, the judiciary and presidents armed with 58 2(B).

For the moment, however, it may not be time for an Armageddon. Civil-military ties are less like a Hollywood thriller with special effects and high body counts and more like a desi family drama with petty conspiracies and sneaky or underwhelming plot twists. Real dramatic moments are few and far in between.

Consider the news leaks saga during Nawaz Sharif’s previous term. There was a similar anticipation of dread when a government notification was rejected via a tweet from ISPR. But the nail-biting moment ended quite tamely with the social media post being withdrawn. It wasn’t the end of the matter for sure and the final curtain call came much later. The Panama judgement, the NAB trials and ECP decisions and the 2018 election, followed over weeks and months, though it was the news leaks which set the stage for all these events.

Can the current impasse also prove to be a similar, proverbial last straw? The reverberations from it hereon, leading to a new set of events which end up deciding the next elections? However, there is a need for a check. It is noteworthy that the establishment has till now, never intervened in two successive elections with the same objective. And to conclude two years before the next election that this historical precedent was going to be broken this time around (before this current fracas) was a hasty conclusion, to put it politely. This is not to say it wasn’t possible but simply to point out that it wasn’t a done deal. And let’s just say that the right spymaster is not the only condition for a successful electoral outcome for the PTI.

Postscript: Whatever the long-term consequences of the current stalemate, the short-term impact is clear. In a country where those heading the spy agency have been surrounded by controversy, (think Shuja Pasha, Zaheer ul Islam, Rizwan Akhtar), the current incumbent has not been served well by the prime minister’s decision or rather the rumours around why the prime minister made the decision he did. In so doing, he has brought back memories of Ziauddin Butt. And in this parallel, the irony relates not to the two spy heads but the two prime ministers involved, who seem to have spent the past few years establishing how different they are from each other.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2021