The Pulse

Why Imran Khan’s Meeting With Pakistan’s New Army Chief Matters

Army chiefs come and go in Pakistan, but they can’t seem to stay out of politics.

Why Imran Khan’s Meeting With Pakistan’s New Army Chief Matters
Credit: Flickr/ Jawad Zakariya

Early last week, Imran Khan, the head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, met with the chief of army staff of the Pakistani military, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The meeting between Khan and Bajwa has certainly come as a surprise, for it is very rare that the military leadership in Pakistan invites political opposition for meetings — unless the Army wants to send a message to the civilian government regarding policies that may not have been approved by the security establishment. However, in this case there appears to be no serious differences on security and foreign policy between the civilian government and the military that would merit a meeting between the Army chief and Khan, an opposition leader who has questioned the government’s policies mainly through agitation.

So what was this meeting all about?

Two things stand out from optics surrounding the meeting. First, from the government’s perspective, the appointment of Bajwa was mainly done on the basis of his apparent support for democracy and his desire to uphold effective civilian supremacy. However, the meeting sends a clear message to the political party in power that the new leadership of the Army is not neutral in terms of the country’s domestic politics. From now on, Bajwa, who had previously been seen as only interested in military matters, gains an image as a chief who is also interested in weighing in on political issues that interest his institution’s — or perhaps his own — interests.

Second, the meeting also shows that the politicization of the Pakistani military’s leadership is inevitable, for the institution’s interests are far broader than what the position of Army chief itself nominally allows. So understandably, while the chief may not be interested in interfering in political affairs, his institution’s interests can dictate his role. The civilian government’s expectations of having the silent and abiding support of the military leadership in all political affairs have by and large evaporated. For the government, the meeting indicates the return of the usual “political chessboard” under Bajwa, where political matters are closely watched by the security establishment.

Apparently, the only constant, as far as the role of the army chief is concerned, are institutional interests and everything else, including civil-military relations, revolves around those interests. Therefore, what the civilian leadership can ensure through its choice of the chief is a general who may allow the government to continue working normally only if that government conforms to the military’s interests. What the government cannot ensure is a chief who would allow the civilian elite a free ride in terms of formulating policies that directly clash with the military’s own domestic and foreign security policies.

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In the short run, the meeting between Khan and Bajwa was meant to “level the playing field” for political parties in the country. Khan’s party has been the main political rival of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), the party in power. The PTI has led a brutal campaign against the leadership of the PML-N in the Panama Papers corruption scandal, where a verdict is expected to be released by the country’s top court in the next few days.

The fallout from the Panama Papers corruption scandal is likely to come in the form of public protests led by Khan’s party if the Sharif family, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is cleared of wrongdoing by the courts. In this context, one can argue that the meeting was set up to inform Khan that the military’s leadership does not favor any agitation at a time when political and economic stability is in the interest of all institutions. On the other hand, arguably, it was also meant to send a direct or indirect message to the government that the court’s decision, regardless of its connotations, should be respected and implemented by the party in power.

On the whole, in Pakistan it’s the return of the usual circle of power politics, where the military has always been king maker.