What to expect in Pakistan now: here are four possible scenarios

The turmoil in Pakistan continues towards a likely denouement by the end of this month, when the Pakistan Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, is due to step down. Whether he does that, who his successor is, how he will be appointed, and what relations there are between him and former Prime Minister Imran Khan — these questions are crucial to the future political course in Pakistan.

After escaping an apparent bid on his life, Khan has decided not to call off the “long march” which began on October 28 from Lahore, destination Islamabad, with the aim of demanding an immediate election.

While the Shehbaz Sharif government still holds some cards, behind the current political chaos in Pakistan is the falling out between Khan and his erstwhile patron Bajwa, and that has to be resolved for some political calm. There is much speculation about how it might all play out.

Here are four possible scenarios for the days ahead.

SCENARIO 1: General Bajwa steps down on the due date and a successor is appointed.

All indications are that this is the most likely scenario. Bajwa is due to retire on November 29, and he has said many times over the last few months that he has no desire to continue beyond this date.

On November 10, the Inter Service Public Relations, the media and publicity wing of the Pakistan military, said in a statement that Bajwa had visited Sialkot and Mangla garrisons “as part of his farewell visits”. On November 9, he had visited the Peshawar Corps — this was a day after a meeting of the corps commanders in Rawalpindi, which may have been his final official meeting with the Army top brass.

Bajwa had begun these farewell calls on November 1 — with a visit to the Army Air Defence Command. The next day, he was at the Armed Forces Strategic Forces Command.

The handover to Bajwa’s successor will take place on the day he retires. No name has been announced yet, which is unusual — and probably due to the current political circumstances. But it is quite likely that the successor has been finalised.

With the near certainty of an Imran Khan comeback whenever elections are held — and if they are free and fair — how the PTI leader gets on with Bajwa’s successor will be important. In anticipation, Khan was pushing for a “consensus” Army chief, who would be named after consultations between himself, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and the Army chief.

Sharif, who is visiting his brother Nawaz in London, has said he would not “surrender” the Prime Minister’s power to appoint the Army chief at any cost, Dawn reported a source close to him as saying. Khan, for his part, has drawn the battle lines already, stating that a new Army chief appointed by “thieves” and “traitors” — his description of the Sharifs — would be tainted by his association with them.

Even if through some twists in the tale Khan gets to appoint his man, there is no certainty this appointee will remain loyal to him. If Pakistan’s recent history is any guide, Army chiefs tend to outgrow political patrons. Bajwa was Nawaz Sharif’s appointment in 2013. Sharif’s judicial ouster in 2016-2017 was widely considered to have been engineered by the Army.

SCENARIO 2: General Bajwa does not step down, and continues into a second extension.

Despite indications that Bajwa is planning to step down, speculation continues about the possibility that he might not. At a recent press conference, Khan called this “a billion dollar question”.

If Bajwa does stay on — even though it looks unlikely at this point — it may happen for one of two reasons.

One, as part of a deal between him, the Sharif government, and Imran, so that the new Army chief may be appointed by the next government, which Khan assumes will be his.

After the bid on his life last week, Khan named Prime Minister Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and a Major General in the ISI, Faisal Naseer, as those who had scripted the plan to bump him off — and demanded the resignation of the Prime Minister and Sanaullah.

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But to the surprise of many, he left out Bajwa’s name, giving rise to speculation that he is keeping a door open for the Army Chief, and for a possible negotiated end to the stand-off.

Two, Bajwa could give himself an extension as a precursor to an Army intervention, whose main aim would be to put a lid on Imran Khan’s brinkmanship in the “national interest”, which in the Pakistan Army’s lexicon is co-terminus with its own interests.

Khan’s decision to continue the long march even after the attempt on his life — with him addressing rallies remotely via video before rejoining the march in person as it reaches Islamabad — seems to suggest he is keeping his options open.

He has already crossed several red lines when it comes to the Army, including his open attempts to incite rebellion against the top brass, and name-calling Bajwa on several occasions. If the Army decides he has crossed one too many red line, the most likely form of intervention would be martial law — many see this as an “interim” or a short duration solution that might last until the next elections. The Pakistan Army has learnt from experience that long years of military rule can be as damaging to its interests.

But an extension to Bajwa, whichever way it comes, will not go down well within the military, where the hierarchical pyramid keeps shedding officials along the way. The continuation of one person at the top beyond his time jeopardises the careers of many below.

There have been three chiefs since 2007 when Musharraf stepped down as COAS after nine years. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani negotiated one extension, serving a total of six years. The next man in the post, Raheel Sharif, went on time after three years. Bajwa too has served for six years.

Khan draws his support from Pakistan’s urban middle classes. The Pakistan Army sees itself as Pakistan’s only non-feudal, non-dynastic, and quintessentially middle-class organisation. Not surprisingly, Khan is now believed to be popular in large sections of the military and, by the same measure, Bajwa is a hated figure. An extension would worsen it for him.

Bajwa’s own cohort in the military has long gone, and he is seen to be out of touch with younger officers. Martial law could draw the divisions out in the open. Under the circumstances, even a counter coup is not beyond the realm of possibility.

SCENARIO 3: Imran gets his way, and snap elections are called as a part of a grand bargain.

In this scenario, under the pressure that Khan is exerting through the long march, the three sides to this battle negotiate a resolution. The Shehbaz Sharif government may resign, and a caretaker government would be formed to conduct the elections. Bajwa would continue till the elections, but would stand back to let Khan win. He would go home afterward, and Imran Khan would appoint his own Army chief.

Though he has declared that the Army should be as accountable as any other government organisation, once in power, Imran may not try and reset the civilian-military balance, but he will choose a COAS who is supportive of his political ambitions and plans. But as pointed out above, this may not work out exactly as Khan might want it to.

In 1993, after President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had a falling-out, then Army chief General Waheed Kakar stepped in to end the standoff. He got both men to resign to clear the decks, and a caretaker government was formed under the Prime Ministership of Moeen Qureshi, who had been at the IMF and World Bank. The ISI took a hands-off approach, and Benazir Bhutto won the election.

But the Army and establishment remained all powerful. In her first term in office from 1988-1990, Bhutto tried to bypass them, which proved costly. She was dismissed even before she got halfway through her term. In her second stint, Bhutto was more circumspect in her relations with the militablishment, but was still unable to finish her term. She was dismissed by President Farooq Leghari as allegations of corruption against her and husband Asif Zardari grew louder, and started making waves internationally.

SCENARIO 4: Imran does not get his way — in this scenario, the long march fizzles out.

Khan is persuaded by the Army, and perhaps some signalling from international players — Saudi Arabia, UAE, China, US — to let the march die down without the planned climax in Islamabad. The injured leg may have its uses in such an eventuality. Or the march comes to an end by itself, which seems likely without his active participation. Prime Minister Sharif’s government stays till the next election, due in mid-2023, giving him enough time to stabilise the economy.

An orderly succession in the Army takes place on the due date. The first impulse of the next COAS would be to consolidate his hold over the “institution” and strengthen its domination of Pakistan, and over the government of the day. With all his talk about wanting to make the Army accountable to the political leadership, Imran becomes untrustworthy in the eyes of the Army in the same way as Nawaz Sharif was.

In an ironic twist, the Sharif brothers and the Bhuttos will, in this scenario, look to the Army to save their government, and guarantee their continuance after the next election. The Army ensures that the PTI does not win the next election. The disqualification of Imran Khan is a straw in the wind in this direction. But that only means Pakistan’s political instability will continue.

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