Rumours surrounding the future of Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani were rife last week with The Wall Street Journal and Pakistani news outlets suggesting he might be made the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) with additional powers and responsibilities. This would be done, it was believed, to ensure continuity in the approach towards the Taliban, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the backdrop of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan next year.
However, these rumours were brushed aside by the man himself in a statement published by Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) on October 6, where he said he would retire as planned on November 291 , despite the rumoured allure of a “revamped” Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC) that would control counter-terrorism operations and the nuclear stockpile. The statement, however, does not put the issue to rest. Reports of his possible appointment as CJCSC that surfaced on October 5 were drawn from unnamed government and establishment insiders, suggesting that they might have been weather balloons floated to gauge reactions from stakeholders.
A change in the scope and ambit of the JCSC will be a major structural reconfiguration that will migrate some of the power traditionally held by the Army Chief to the tri-service body. This will undoubtedly be a contentious issue for the army. Sharif will not want to court frustration at this hour among the top ranking generals aspiring for forward movement in their careers. Kayani’s extension under the PPP’s Yousuf Raza Gilani in 2010 had allegedly frustrated senior officers who expected the Army Chief post to open up three years ago.
There has been speculation in Pakistani media that Lt. Gen. Haroon Aslam, the senior most Army officer after Kayani, might take over the CJCSC position with either Lt. Gen. Rashad Mahmood or Lt. Gen. Tariq Khan elevated to the COAS position. This is quite credible given Sharif’s earlier announcement that he would stick to the seniority principle, which he had flouted in 1993 and 1999 while elevating Generals Kakar and Musharraf for the top job.
The persistence of Kayani’s name in the rumour mill makes it certain that there are sections within the government who would like Kayani to continue in some capacity, at least till the Afghan withdrawal is complete. Moreover, with the scourge of terrorism in Pakistan showing no sign of receding, the government may consider further harnessing Kayani’s experience and intimate knowledge of ground realities. Also, the US may want him to continue considering their massive retrograde movement of troops, technology, ammunition and equipment from Afghanistan planned over the next few months. Kayani is known to have a comfortable working relationship with the US, as is Lt. Gen Tariq Khan.
However, these rumours aside, any change in leadership of the army at this juncture may not affect the ground reality too much. As a professional organisation, the army is expected to swivel around the next boss chosen by whatever means. The inertia of the Kayani years will most likely continue to guide the army’s line in matters concerning Afghanistan and domestic jihadis, unless the person chosen springs a surprise to bring about a total overhaul of the civil-military equation, as Ziaul Haq and Musharraf did in the past. As far as India is concerned, no major change is going to take place in the Pakistani army’s outlook and orientation.
Despite the claims from the Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid that the government had achieved a modicum of progress in talks with Taliban groups, media reports suggest that the government’s overall position on talks has hardened after successive attacks on the army and three major bombings on the city of Peshawar (which the top echelons of the TTP have since distanced themselves from). It seems Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-I-Insaf (PTI) is the last major mainstream political party advocating talks, with the Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F and Munawar Hassan’s Jamaat e Islami (JI) (Khan’s major coalition partner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), questioning the idea of talks with the TTP after the Upper Dir attack on the army2 . The Barelvi Sunni Ittehad Council even made a call for direct force to be used against the Taliban3 .
Recently, however, the PTI found some support in Sami ul Haq’s faction of JUI, the Deobandi Wafaqul Madaris and the Ahle Sunnat Waal Jamaat (ASWJ), who echoed Imran’s call for talks4 . Imran Khan’s Chief Minister in K-P, Pervez Khattak recently called for a troop withdrawal from the Malakand division5 .
There are many in Pakistan who are calling such direct appeasement of radical islamists a questionable ploy, especially since the mechanics of such a withdrawal leave too many critical questions unanswered. The Peshawar High Court has, in the meanwhile, said that such a withdrawal will mean TTP militants in custody will have to be freed unless there is legislative intervention at the federal or provincial level to provide a legal platform for their continued internment by the security forces.6
The Army itself will scarcely be in a mood to entertain requests for withdrawal after suffering large and constant setbacks against the TTP and other “dialogue partners”. The withdrawal from Malakand division will be an interesting bellwether in judging where the army, Sharif and provincial politicians stand on the issue of talking to the Taliban.
Recent figures from the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) of Pakistan show that though there have been significant increases in revenue collection efficiency over the last three months, they are still below what is necessary to reach the annual target of Rs. 2.475 trillion set by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and the IMF. September’s collection figures (Rs. 202 billion) saw a shortfall of Rs. 26 billion. However, it was still well above the Rs. 180 billion collected in September 2012. Larger total collection figures also show a positive trend: total collection for the first quarter (July to September) stands at Rs. 481 billion, significantly higher than the Rs. 414 billion collected in the first quarter of the previous fiscal7 . These are healthy numbers considering the FBR collected around Rs. 1.9 trillion in fiscal year 2011-2012 and Rs. 1.92 trillion in 2012-13, registering next to no growth8 . However, any moves on the government’s part to further increase revenue collection as per its commitment to the IMF may face resistance from institutions like the judiciary and the legislature in coming days.
In fact, Sharif’s move to rationalize the electricity tariff structure on September 30 by hiking prices was dealt a bitter blow when the Supreme Court forced the government to withdraw the notification on October 49 . As things stand, the government has asked Nepra (the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority) to review the prices, which should happen in three weeks’ time10 .
The SC’s suo moto notice of the issue is not unprecedented. Living up to his reputation as an activist judge, Chief Justice Chaudhry stepped in immediately after the one percent hike in General Sales Tax from 16 to 17 percent in June and forced the government on the back foot until the National Assembly approved the increase on June 2811 . Planned increases in energy prices, driven both by the strictures of the IMF and pure common sense, could be a sticking point between an interventionist Supreme Court projecting itself as the guardian of the vulnerable and a government juggling the compulsions of economics and democracy.
It remains highly unlikely therefore that the government will see its annual revenue target achieved in three quarters’ time, but, if the numbers are to be trusted, the government has made significant progress so far, which the IMF should be happy with.
Prepared by Aditya Valiathan Pillai