Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has granted an extension to the tenure of the country’s Army Chief for another three years. General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who heads Pakistan’s most powerful institution, was due to retire later this year. While the government in Pakistan has said that “the decision has been taken in view of the regional security environment,” a domestic aspect of the development cannot be overlooked in the discourse.
Certainly, a lot is happening on Pakistan’s borders. On the Eastern front, tensions are running high as situation escalates along the Line of Control (LoC). On the Western front, cross-border attacks have continued to take place even though Pakistan has made huge considerable strides to fence the Durand Line. Moreover, the looming uncertainly over the Afghan peace process, the expansion of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Afghanistan and the potential of an alliance among other anti-Pakistan extremist groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Baluch insurgent groups, have complicated Pakistan’s security woes. The border with Iran remains an area of concern for Islamabad as security commitments have grown in the country’s Baluchistan province. Overall, the deployment of Pakistan’s ground forces remains stretched because of the ongoing operational obligations across all fronts ranging from counter-terrorism to paying attention to the dismal situation on eastern and western fronts. In fact, in the coming weeks and months, the deployment of Pakistan’s forces is going to broaden further and preparations in this regard have already begun.
While all of this may have added to the General Bajwa’s extension, the core of the decision remains linked to domestic developments. In Pakistan, extensions are mainly granted under two conditions. First, when an army chief and his core team are interested in such an outcome and governments believe that an approval in this regard is likely to coagulate their rule and ability to govern. Second, the extension is granted when an army chief and his team are interested in such an outcome and governments have to calibrate their position to accommodate such a scenario. Historically, when the second condition has failed to click, disparities have emerged between the military and civilian leaderships. However, when either of the above scenarios have connected, Pakistan has experienced domestic political stability, albeit temporarily.
Interestingly, the case of General Bajwa falls under both scenarios. Domestically, General Bajwa and Khan have worked closely, avoiding major frictions that may have been the case during previous tenures. Moreover, the duo has brought much needed political stability domestically and introduced changes to the country’s regional security policy. For critics, the changes may not have been holistic but some sectors such as the Afghanistan situation and the Kashmir policy have seen evolution.
The current military leadership has offered Khan full support when it comes to implementing the government’s economic and political agenda. So far, the support base remains intact as both parties have shown willingness to accommodate each other’s concerns and wishes in a mutual effort of achieving agreement. Some observers argue that the much talked about understanding between the two leaders may not necessarily be true in the context of great admiration for each other. Rather, it’s turning out to be a fine working relationship that is a good reflection of the mutual dependency model and interdependence. However, going forward, the bond may be tested as issues related to governance and managing the economy effectively remain a strategic concern.
For Khan’s government, the support of the current military leadership is vital for the endurance of his regime and to tackle the brewing pressure from the opposition political parties. With General Bajwa securing another three years as the Chief of Army Staff, the current government is likely to gain more political strength in the coming months. It is expected that the ongoing accountability drive against political opposition will gain more speed. Opposition political parties should not expect to make any significant gains for the next six to twelve months.
Given General Bajwa’s track record, it is expected that the former would like his legacy to reflect major gains domestically and regionally. In that context, I foresee some major decisions in the coming months. It would be interesting to see how Khan and General Bajwa’s relationship evolves from here.