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Can Bajwa be part of the solution in ending Pakistan’s turmoil?

Qamar Javed Bajwa can fulfil Imran Khan’s bigger strategic goal of precipitating an internal power shift in Pakistan where the military is subordinated to the elected leadership

Pakistani politicians are once again knocking on the door of Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa who is set to retire at the month-end.

The reason? In case Bajwa extends his tenure, it could lead to a deal between the rampaging Imran Khan and the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on holding fresh national elections. Khan wants the polls to be held asap to take advantage of what many perceive is his growing popularity. After being removed in a no-confidence motion, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e- Insaf  (PTI) Party has generally swept local elections that have been held since. With the wind behind his back, especially after last week’s failed assassination attempt, Khan and his ilk ardently wish to hold early polls.

Here is where Gen. Bajwa comes in to fulfil Khan’s bigger strategic goal—of precipitating an internal power shift in Pakistan where the military is subordinated to the elected leadership.

Khan, therefore, wants Bajwa’s tenure to be extended. By how much is not clear, but it is logical to assume that the extension should be linked to the next elections. Since the PTI wants early elections, Bajwa should be in the saddle till then.

From Khan’s perspective, stage-2 of his project—of slaying the military as the state-within-a-state in Pakistan–begins only then. Assuming that he and his party will win hands down, Khan then intends to appoint a new army chief of his choice who will be ready to play a junior partner to the elected civilian authority. Will Khan succeed in this project, something which the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto failed to accomplish, ending up at the gallows, losing out to the wily Gen, Zia-ul-Haq? Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had also to seek refuge in Jeddah after he failed to sack former General Pervez Sharif, who marshalled a military coup against him.

The military is bound to see Khan’s move as an existential threat to its grip on power and is likely to fiercely unite, although after a possible and bitter faction fight within. There is no doubt that Khan has insiders in the military, but whether they command the internal balance of power in his favour, as of now, is unlikely. In any case, a churn within the military is now inevitable with the former Prime Minister gone this far to emerge as the chief disruptor of the existing system tilted in favour of the military.

Despite Khan’s embedment with Islamists, terror groups that proliferate the land also feed off the military. They are likely to turn against the former Prime Minister if their main benefactors in uniform are dragged to the firing line.

Pushed on the backfoot, the ruling PDM alliance would like elections to be delayed, in the hope that fortunes, somehow, will turn by that time. They may, in fact, may not be too keen for Bajwa to continue. In their calculation and being essentially status quo, an appointment of the new Army Chief, hostile to Khan, by the month-end would be preferable in order to undercut the former Prime Minister even if he wins elections whenever they are held.

According to the Pakistani daily News International, Khan and the PTI are willing to hold elections in mid-next year. But Nawaz Sharif and other leaders of the ruling coalition, including Asif Ali Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, are not ready for mid-term polls. They would, in fact,  like elections to be held in October-November.

“Instead of continuation of the present Shehbaz Sharif government, an interim setup would be acceptable to Imran Khan, but it is not clear if the arrangement for a more extended period would be acceptable to him (Imran). Under the Constitution, the interim setup cannot extend beyond 90 days,“ the daily said.

Despite the PTI’s intent, Bajwa is unlikely to agree to any extension. Apparently, he told corps commanders at a meeting a few weeks ago that he was firm about his retirement plan.

In such an eventuality, the crisis can be defused only if Khan and Sharif along with his coalition partners agree on naming a new Army Chief. But in case that does not happen, the political parties, civil society and the military in Pakistan will undergo a chaotic internal churn for a long time to come, with a broad spectrum of unpredictable possibilities.

Also Read: Who will succeed Gen. Bajwa when he finally retires as Pakistan’s Army Chief next month?