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Differences over ISI chief's appointment a test for Gen Bajwa

‘Your armed forces shall never let you down,’ said Gen Musharraf after the coup

AP1_13_2020_000117B General Qamar Javed Bajwa

On October 12, 1999, it took just 17 hours for Pakistan chief of army staff Pervez Musharraf to overthrow the Nawaz Sharif government in a bloodless coup. Sharif had kept intelligence chief General Ziauddin by his side, appointing his new head of the military, but was soon defeated, put under house arrest before being forced into exile. On this day, the military rule set in for the third time in Pakistan.  

“ Your armed forces have never, and shall never, let you down,” Musharraf told Pakistanis in a late-night address that night. 

As Pakistan commemorates the 22nd anniversary of the military coup on Tuesday, Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan was huddled with the incumbent chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa to iron out the differences over the appointment of incoming ISI chief Lt General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum. 

Imran Khan's dependency on his predecessor Lt General Faiz Hameed is well known in Pakistani security circles.

Imran Khan is fighting polarisation within the political arena where opposition like Pakistan People's Party (PPP) are sniping at his heels. Like some of his predecessors, he had been looking at Lt General Hameed to bail him out. But when Gen Bajwa met the prime minister last week and told him that Lt Gen Hameed has to be posted out as Commander of Peshawar-based Corps XI, Khan wasn't happy. 

 Lt Gen Hameed was removed as ISI chief and sent as Commander of Peshawar-based Corps XI on the instructions of Gen Bajwa. The only time a prime minister in Pakistan appointed an ISI chief of their choice was when Benazir Bhutto brought in Lt Gen (retd) Shamsur Rahman Kallu, using her powers to appoint the ISI chief to replace the hawkish Lt Gen Hamid Gul in 1989. But history bears testimony to Bhutto's fate when she was shown the door a year later and it was a helpless Lt Gen Kallu whose own units defied him and were used by the military to topple her government.

 Once again, a controversy over the change of command at ISI has hit home and security experts view it as an indicator of the growing rift between the civilian government of Imran Khan and the chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Gen Bajwa has made it clear that the institutional interest of the Pakistan army has to be protected at all costs. The difference over the ISI chief's appointment is a test case for the Army General. Top officials said if the Pakistan army backs out now, it will be a huge setback to Gen Bajwa, the chances of which are extremely unlikely unless Pakistan is plunging into the making of another military coup which it can ill afford. 

 Traditionally, civilian governments in Pakistan have had little say when it comes to the affairs of the army. One of the reasons being cited for Lt Gen Hameed's posting is that all the three generals before him had been posted as corps commanders and the requisite experience would help Lt Gen Hameed to be in contention for the next army chief when Gen Bajwa retires in November 2022. ''But more than that it is Bajwa's decision to send him out that has to prevail over Khan's political needs or convenience,'' said a top security official.

Security sources said Lt Gen Hameed's visit to Kabul and the international attention on the ISI chief at a time when the world was watching the Taliban -Haqqani takeover of Afghanistan, had not also gone down well with Gen Bajwa even though it has scored political brownie points for Imran Khan government for its strategic victory in its neighbourhood. For Imran Khan, the simpler way out is to avoid a deadlock and issue a clarification about the delay in issuing a formal order on the appointment of the new ISI chief. His predecessors have done it in the past when they have defied the army's will or diktat.

In 2008, when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was en route to Washington, ISI chief Lt Gen Nadeem Taj was waiting anxiously for his plane to land midway in London to convey a message. The message was that Gen Ashfaq Kiyani, then chief of army staff, was miffed after Gilani had issued an order that the ISI, which focusses on external intelligence, will be brought under the Interior Ministry. The army had not been consulted. Within minutes of Gilani's plane landing in London, the Pakistan government issued a ''clarification'' that the earlier notification was a ''misunderstanding''.

 This time, Imran Khan and Gen Bajwa are holding talks and whatever decision is taken, the will of the Pakistan army is expected to prevail.

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