EDITORIAL: Surely outgoing Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa knew that his farewell speech – surprising in some ways, not so surprising in others – would stir quite a storm, so it can safely be assumed that the so-called establishment is finally ready for the conversation that has already started.
The first thing that stands out about it is the timing of the admission; because the military’s puppeteering in politics was no longer talked about in hushed tones or behind closed doors since Imran Khan was stung by the no-confidence motion and went to town on its refusal to intervene and protect his administration.
Still, for the army chief, who does not have the luxury of personal opinions till he retires and only reflects the institutional view of the force that he commands, to formally accept “unconstitutional” interference in politics for 70 years does break fresh ground. Perhaps the claim that the army had started its own process of “catharsis” enabled this bold strategic shift. Time will tell.
It is interesting that he also brought up the fall of Dhaka, a topic most people and institutions tend to avoid, because PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) has started playing this card as well of late. It’s true that the lack of a progressive debate has left some important facts shrouded in mystery, and he may well be justified in calling it “not a military but a political failure”.
Yet it needs to be reminded that the political administration of the time was in fact a military dispensation, and the commander-in-chief of the army was also the chief executive of the country.
Such things can never be seen only in black and white and the political establishment of the western wing also played its part, no doubt, but a frank and important admission that leaves out the most crucial points will only leave people with more questions than answers.
Going forward, how strictly and sincerely the army sticks to its promise of non-interference will depend on how quickly and transparently it can address a few valid concerns. What, for example, prompted this shift, why in February 2022, and how far will it withdraw from mainstream politics? It has a very clear, and perhaps necessary, footprint in foreign affairs, security and sometimes even economic policies – which, all things considered, is often but not always undesirable – so how different can we expect the future to be? There have been plenty of times when the military had to step in, not to make or break governments but to facilitate loans and deals which successive political administrations were unable to secure, and there’s still no word on how this particular knot will be untied.
Much will depend on the politicians also. A lot of what Gen Bajwa said can be debated, even questioned, but the one point where he clearly hit the nail on the head was the lack of tolerance among rival politicians and political parties, and their inherent weakness, which allows breaching of institutional boundaries.
Their toxic hatred for each other is on display now like never before, as labels of “selected” and “imported” have degenerated into unfounded accusations and downright undignified exchanges that have polarised society. For Pakistan to finally transition into a mature democracy, the political elite must not only welcome the army’s newfound restraint, they must also facilitate this transition to its logical destination and to be able to do that it is imperative that they get their own act together very quickly. But if they continue to bicker even as the political uncertainty threatens to push the economy over the edge, then they will have themselves, more than the establishment, to blame for what follows.
The proof of the pudding lies in the eating, so the coming months and years will show if the army has indeed learned from its mistakes, and if the politicians are willing to learn from theirs. But first there will be more questions, of course, so there must also be more candid answers. Otherwise the “catharsis”, and the process it is meant to initiate, will remain incomplete.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2022