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The Larger Significance of Pakistan’s Army Chief Extension Debate

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The Larger Significance of Pakistan’s Army Chief Extension Debate

General Bajwa may well get to serve another three years, but that shouldn’t mask the changes underway in Pakistan’s politics.

The Larger Significance of Pakistan’s Army Chief Extension Debate
Credit: Instagram/ ISPR

In Pakistan, the word “extension” has become synonymous with one particular usage: extending the service of a retiring chief of the country’s all-powerful military. The concept has a history as old as Pakistan itself — six army chiefs in the past have either extended their period of service upon reaching the age of retirement, or their term was extended by the then-governments.

However, the floodgates opened by the term extension of General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s current army chief whose service term was ending on November 28, was unprecedented.

The government notification granting Bajwa another three years as chief of the army staff (COAS) was challenged by the country’s top court and the issue remained the subject of public and private debates and speculations for three consecutive days across Pakistan.

The impasse was averted with the court decision allowing a six-month reprieve to the general, during which time the government must sort out the matter through legislation. Parliament must define the reasons for granting an extension to an army chief’s service term, tenure, and other necessary terms and conditions.

Bajwa’s extension has remained a topic of public debate for several reasons. First, the military’s role in Pakistan is being questioned, and pretty openly, since the July 2018 parliamentary elections. The restrictions on media and arrests of rights activists are often attributed to the military’s intelligence agencies. Meanwhile, expanding use of social media has both sensitized civil society to issues that they believe to be extra-constitutional or against the rule of law and also emboldened them to raise questions about and objections.

Just before the opening of the Pandora’s box of Bajwa’s extension, opposition parties held a two-week long sit-in protest in Islamabad in an attempt to force Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign. They were demanding fresh parliamentary elections on the grounds that the July 2018 election was rigged in favor of Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf or Justice Movement.

Critics are convinced that the military establishment propped up Khan to get rid of the dynastic leadership of the two main political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League and Pakistan People’s Party, whose leadership had alternatively ruled Pakistan since 1988.

The high level of elation when Bajwa’s extension order was challenged by the Supreme Court last week points to several key indicators that may determine the future of democracy in Pakistan.

First, while the majority of Pakistanis keep the military in high esteem due to its discipline and professionalism, it is no longer more believed to be impartial and uncontroversial, as it once used to be. Unlike the past, the military’s role in politics is now being questioned and even flagrantly criticized. That means the days are gone when an elected government would be removed through a coup d’état. However, the option of running an elected government by pulling strings from behind the scenes still exists.

Although the army continues to have a major role in running the country, the period between October 1999 and November 2019 is Pakistan’s longest without a direct military take over. Both external and internal factors could be named to explain the shift.

Second, while the civil society is up in arms for civilian supremacy and the rule of law, the politicians, the so-called custodians of the constitution and democracy, have yet to get the courage to speak out.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan, which challenged Bajwa’s three-year extension by raising key questions, proved its independence. It also quite understandably kicked the ball into the politicians’ court by ordering parliament to craft proper legislation governing an extension in the service tenure of the army chief upon reaching the age of retirement.

Now, it is up to the political leadership to decide whether they want to act or not. The court did its job; the politicians have yet to do the same.

Third, the conventional Pakistani media – newspapers and television channels – mostly maintained their usual silence about the key question of why the army chief needs an extension. Instead, they continued testing their guns on the civilian authorities by calling them incapable and debating the “how” and “when” aspects of Bajwa’s extension. But the (so far) unchained social media was full of questions as to that all-intriguing “WHY.”

And it is the “WHY” that makes the extension fiasco perhaps the most disastrous for the military’s image in recent decades, going by the popular trends in social media as well as public and private debates.

For decades, the image of a Pakistani politician has been that of an individual full of greed, guided by vested interests, incapable of correcting the country’s wrongs, and part-time agent of the proverbial foreign powers. By contrast, the men in uniform have been seen as saviors with an undisputed patriotism and loyalty to the country and the state. Now both those images are beginning to be questioned.

As the creeping social media revolution poses a challenge to the state monopoly over information, common Pakistanis no longer relies on the official news feeds. They have access to more and diversified sources of information, which helped expand the public’s analysis of a situation and decision-making.

This revolution is already ringing through urban Pakistan and gradually making headway in the rural parts. It may take time. And during that time, General Bajwa may complete his expected three-year extension.

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.