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The significance of Imran Khan's tussle with the ISI

Khan is losing support from both the army and the public

imran-khan-pakistan1-reuters File photo of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan | Reuters

Pakistan is going through an edgy phase. Once again, the country's army has imposed itself over its elected government. After a month of political-military tussle, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was left with no choice but to sign the notification appointing Lt General Nadeem Anjum as the next chief of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

On November 20, Lt Gen Anjum, presently Karachi Corps Commander, will succeed Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who will be made Peshawar Corps Commander.

Military observers suspect that the army may be plotting to remove Imran Khan from his post after the debacle over the ISI chief's appointment.

Despite the delayed approval by the prime minister's office, Lt Gen Anjum has already been navigating ISI with the backing of Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. All of the spy agency's major generals already report regularly to Lt Gen Anjum. 

Pakistan-army-chief-bajwa-Reuters File photo of Pakistan army chief Javed Bajwa | Reuters

Throughout the month-long controversy, while denying any differences with the army, the Pakistan government has repeatedly said that the PMO has the right to select the ISI chief. But, traditionally, the army chief recommends the name and the PMO accepts it with any reservation.

With the appointment marking the end of the month-long politico-military faceoff, it is Gen Bajwa who emerges the winner. Military supremacy over the selection of its cadre has always been there in Pakistan. The only time a prime minister in Pakistan appointed an ISI chief of his/her 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.

Lt Gen Faiz Hameed was Khan's go-to man, and his removal would keep him in a spot of bother with less than two years to go for the general elections in Pakistan. Lt Gen Hameed is meeting all cabinet ministers as his farewell meeting, which is 'unusual', but indicates his equation with the Khan government. An embarrassed Khan may have further trouble, as his party Tehreek-e-Insaf might lose its political allies Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q).  

Military observers believe that its an indication of Imran Khan's losing proximity with the Pakistan army. Khan, who has also been losing public support, now finds his political career in a fix. Despite the Pakistan army having helped Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) come to power in 2018, he has enjoyed little bonhomie with it. Khan's hobnobbing with extremist and terrorist organisations may also have contributed to his loss of public support. That, and his decision to dispatch Lt Gen Hameed to Kabul after the Taliban took over in Afghanistan. A faction of experts feels it was a blunder on the part of the Pakistan military to support the Taliban even though only a few countries had accepted the hardliners' regime in Kabul. The move brought international attention to the ISI chief at a time when the world was watching the Taliban-Haqqani takeover of Afghanistan. It did not go down well with Gen Bajwa, even though it scored political brownie points for the Khan government as it was seen as a strategic victory in its neighbourhood. Gen Bajwa is against the ideology of the radical extremism of the Taliban and believes radical extremes would harm Pakistan as well. And it may have led to the departure of Lt Gen Hameed from the spy agency.   

With the economy already collapsing due to high debt and inflation, Imran Khan faces an even-patchier ride if Bajwa Khan abandons him. 

Pakistan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed hauled Khan over coals for engaging in talks with Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)—the outfit responsible for the terror attack on a school in Peshawar in 2014 that killed 132 children.

Khan's political supporters were also upset with the government accepting the demands of Barelvi Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) while negotiating with the marchers for releasing the jailed leaders of the proscribed religious-political group, lifting the ban and allowing it to participate in politics.

Upset over Khan's behaviour, the Pakistan army is believed to be in touch with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who is in London. Sharif and his family are facing several corruption charges, but with the handholding of the Pakistan army, Sharif may return to power in all probability.

Experts say that Khan could perform some damage control by issuing 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 gone against the army's will. 

In 2013, the then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani issued an order placing the ISI under the interior ministry, in an attempt to make ISI answerable to parliament. The move miffed Gen Ashfaq Kiyani, the then army chief, as he had not kept in the loop. Within a few days, Gilani had to take back his order and the Pakistan government issued a ''clarification'' that the earlier notification was a ''misunderstanding''. 

One of the reasons being cited for Lt Gen Hameed's new assignment is that all the three generals before him had been posted as corps commanders; the requisite experience could help Lt Gen Hameed become the next army chief when Gen Bajwa retires in November 2022. In Pakistan, an officer has to serve at least six months as Corps Commander to be eligible to become Army chief.

Now, Lt Gen Hameed as Corps Commander will have a prominent role in issues involving Afghanistan and the Taliban and it will give him more experience in dealing with Americans and the Chinese, as both countries have massive stakes in war-torn Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum, the next ISI chief, belongs to the dominating Punjab Regiment of the Pakistan army and was promoted to Lt General last year. While Anjum's colleagues call him a man with a "glacier brain but sharp reflexes" he was involved in several anti-terrorism operations were conducted under his command by Frontier Corps Balochistan. He earned the title of "Mohsin e Balochistan" for his operations in Balochistan. Anjum, a graduate from the Royal College of Defense Studies in the UK, with a degree from the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, Honolulu, had also served key positions on the Line of Control with India.

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