Over the last few months, even perhaps the last couple of years, a quiet, unobtrusive and perhaps unnoticed transformation has been taking place in the Pakistan Army. There was a time when the Pakistan Army would unabashedly interfere in the politics of the country and play favorites to a point. Apparently, it has now changed track and adopted a hands-off approach, allowing politics to play itself out. This shift in approach surprisingly signifies a more accommodating stance towards democracy and politics.
In recent years, the Pakistan Army has been trying to stabilize civilian governments instead of destabilizing them. Cynics will of course disagree. They might claim that the military had no option but to cut its losses that prompted its current “neutral” stance. However, this is at best a half-truth and overlooks the fact the military could have intervened decisively as it did in the past. Instead, the military now allows Pakistan’s political, constitutional and judicial processes to run.
Does this mean that the military will stay out of the political domain forever? The answer is that we do not know for sure. A lot will depend on both civilian and military leaders as well as political and economic conditions in the country.
An Unusual General in Pakistan
As of now the Pakistan Army led by General Qamar Javed Bajwa is letting civilian politicians run the country. Imran Khan has been voted out by the parliament and Shehbaz Sharif is the new prime minister in a coalition government. This government is running the country with little interference from the military, which is largely trying to stabilize the situation.
Bajwa was not always so benign to democracy. He interfered with the Nawaz Sharif (elder brother of the current prime minister) government who was eventually pushed into exile in 2017. Next year, Bajwa favored Khan and helped him become prime minister. Reports reveal that some candidates were pressured to change loyalties, others were persuaded against running for office, elections were manipulated and other dirty tricks employed. After the 2018 elections, independent members were corralled into Khan’s party. The military backed Khan both at the national and the state level. His party won a majority in the state legislature of Punjab, Pakistan’s dominant state.
From 2018, Bajwa has changed course. The military has not been interfering in politics. Bajwa served Khan loyally and tried to make his government a success. The military fixed many of Khan’s blunders vis-à-vis close allies like China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Even when Khan went against the military’s advice, Bajwa did not act against the elected government. Eventually, Khan lost the confidence of his parliament because he was incompetent and grew delusional over time.
A Step to Normalization and Democracy
Most importantly, the military top brass accepted cuts to the defense budget in 2019 as Pakistan faced economic woes and rushed with a begging bowl yet again to the International Monetary Fund. The military supported the Khan government when it passed legislation to steer Pakistan out of the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list. The FATF is an organization that focuses on combating money laundering, a common practice in Pakistan where some of the proceeds are used to finance terrorism.
Bajwa’s biggest achievement has been pushing better ties with India despite Khan’s incendiary anti-India rhetoric. He has called for talks with India, begun back channel initiatives to kick off trade and negotiated a ceasefire on the Line of Control that forms the de facto border with India. Most recently, 50,000 tons of Indian wheat has been rolling through Pakistan for Afghanistan, saving millions of lives. For the first time, there is hope that the military is finally supporting the normalization of ties with India.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Bajwa did not step in when the Khan government suffered a meltdown. He has scrupulously avoided displaying any Bonapartist tendencies in the land of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf. Now, a coalition is in charge and the Bajwa-led military is abiding by the constitution. If the military withdraws from politics and democracy strengthens in Pakistan, Bajwa would have left an enduring legacy for his country.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.