It's that time of the year again; Pakistan is to get a new Army Chief, or so it would seem. What would be a more or less routine appointment in democracies elsewhere, becomes a matter for massive intrigue and frenzied television debates—all of which has been multiplied by at least a factor of ten this year.
As Imran Khan paces the streets, the Army is being accused of every and anything wrong in Pakistan, and unprintable epithets used against its chief. It's all quite unprecedented.
Plus, it's not just who gets to be the chief that is important. It’s the manner of it that may decide the future. For India, all of this becomes important. After all, a neighbour spinning out of control is not your everyday foreign policy event.
Imran’s Role in Pak Crisis Blown Out of Proportion
Imran Khan’s rage against the Army chief – though not the entire Army – has been based on the chief's refusal to back him in his plans to return to power. At the root, is embassy in the US, which apparently gave an account of the Ambassador being virtually threatened by a US official to get rid of Khan.
That cable has never been seen publicly – though it waved about in a crowd often enough. The ISI chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum in an (yet again) unprecedented interview, now says that Khan had actually dismissed that cable as routine. But therein lies the heart of the problem.
No one believes the Army, despite the General confirming that he had quietly sought negotiations (he had) even while accused of being partial and worse (much worse). Those are powerful arguments, but the public isn’t buying it as apparent from the massive crowds milling around Khan, and the national uproar over an alleged assassination attempt on Khan.
The root of the problem is not Imran. The truth is, that Army interference in politics has been so much a fact of life, that people are now prepared rightly or wrongly to put every ill the country has suffered on its shoulders.
Pak’s Army Chief Selection: A Tough Call
Everyone is tired of this ‘hybrid’ model that delivers nothing, as a former ISI chief says. It could also be that people are tired of endless corruption and mismanagement to which Khan contributed leading to severe economic decay.
Someone has to be blamed, and its convenient to blame the whole also on the US interference, and most unprecedented of all, with the apparent collusion of the Army Chief. It's no accident that #GoBajwago and #BajwaTraitor are trending on social media. And no wonder that Nawaz Sharif and his brother are in hush hush meetings in London, wondering what to do next.
All this makes the selection of a new/old Army Chief extremely complicated. Despite the Chief himself saying publicly that he was to retire, or the evidence indicating that his farewell rounds have begun, rumours that he may be asked to stay on, are rife.
The Bajwa Conundrum of Choice
General Bajwa’s earlier extension in 2019, was also politically fraught with the judiciary striking it down, and asking Parliament to show legislation to allow such extensions. That legislation eventually allowed this, but only till the age of 64. Bajwa is 61, which makes him technically available as chief yet again.
That is precisely what Imran fears since it was Bajwa’s ‘neutrality’ which led him to being chucked out. And that is why, he is alleging that Bajwa is a US tool— the worst ever allegation in Pakistan that rises above the choiciest Punjabi cuss words. But making Bajwa the chief will mean more trouble for Sharif’s government.
One, it will sideline another tranche of senior officers who will retire at a time when the army is already (reportedly) divided on the issue of Khan’s removal, and in the manner of running the country.
The Legal Process of Army Chief Recruits
Sharif has the option of appointing the Senior-most general and going strictly by the rules. According to Article 243(3) of the Constitution, the president appoints the service chiefs on the recommendation of the prime minister after ‘consultation’, when the rank is above that of a Lieutenant-General or equivalent.
The process is that a list of the four-five Senior officers and their files are sent to the PMO by the Ministry. In most countries, such a list would be carefully vetted by the Ministry. In Pakistan, it is said to be simply a post office. Then comes the interesting part. The PMO is supposed to deliberate on this, and an ‘informal’ consultation is supposed take place with the outgoing chief.
Khan tried to keep to this process when he publicly declared that he would like to 'interview' prospective candidates for the ISI Chief. There are no clear rules here in the constitution, but it was quite unprecedented for the PM to do this, usually relying on the ‘advice’ of the chief.
If this new ‘tradition’ is followed, the Sharif will have to accept the ‘informal recommendation’ of the army chief and just go with that, or equally constitutionally, ( and with more transparency) he could just choose the Senior-most. That’s the safest bet.
The trouble is, the Senior-most Lt Gen Munir will retire about the same time as the Chief. He could be elevated to four star rank – which Sharif can do legitimately and then take over. Munir was the shortest-serving ISI Chief when Khan booted him out in favour of his hot favourite Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. Therefore, Munir has no cause no like Imran but quite the reverse. That makes him quite a hot favourite.
Senior-Most Officer or by Recommendation?
Nawaz Sharif is as astute as they come, but despite appointing five army chiefs out of ten, in all his various tenures, he has not come through unscathed. Given the present situation where Bajwa ( and his supporters) may offer ‘advice’ on whom to select, he would probably prefer to go with that – especially since he has now been issued a diplomatic passport for his imminent return.
That’s quite a party gift. Bajwa could recommend Lt-Gen Amir, considered a close confidant. He belongs to the Artillery Regiment and is, at present, commanding the XXX Corps in Gujranwala, which gives him the required credentials. Then, there’s Lt Gen Shamshad Mirza, from the Sindh Regiment who is however, slated to become Chairman , Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.
The problem is not actually whom Bajwa nominates. Anyone, he chooses, will bound to be viewed with suspicion by the masses who have bought the line of ‘Traitor Bajwa’ hook line and sinker. That kind of suspicion, tends to permeate downwards inside the Armed Forces.
‘On Merit’ Is a Dicey Selection Criterion
In most cases, merit would be a dominating factor – at least in public. Besides, Khan’s basic protest line has been that an Army chief should be chosen on this basis, and this only. The problem is that, all of those under consideration, are of, not just the same seniority but also largely the same qualifications. And in such conditions, ‘merit’ might be seen as subjective.
There is of course, Lt Gen Nauman Mahmood who ticks all the boxes – including a tenure at the ISI as DG ( Analysis)—always seen as a top post, commanded the Peshawar Corps at a sensitive time, and liased with foreign intelligence agencies including the US and Brits.
That might lead to a quiet ‘preference’ from outside. Then, there is Lt Gen Azhar Abbas who is an “India specialist’, Chief of General Staff (CGS), a powerful ‘hands-on’ post. Earlier, he commanded the Rawalpindi-based X Corps with not just huge political significance but with a direct role in Kashmir.
No doubts at all that he enjoyed the complete trust of the chief. But India is not exactly a priority at the moment – no matter how many times leaders and Army men talk about Kashmir ad nauseum, but he's certainly a Bajwa man. The trouble is Lt Gen Faiz Hamid, is really the most experienced, given not only his mastery of the Afghan situation, but also internal politics during his tenure as DG ISI.
If you want a ‘hybrid’ model to continue, Faiz is your man. But the Sharifs would probably prefer slow torture than nominating the man who made their corruption scandals a household word when television screen showed luxurious homes and documents showed money beyond the dreams of 90 percent of Pakistanis – none of which was ever proved to have been the fruits of corruption. So merit, may not be the best guide – at least for the beleaguered Sharifs.
Will New Army Chief Uphold Pak’s India Policy?
The truth of the matter is, the very intensity of Imran’s campaign that in pushing for fresh elections, is well and truly focused on an eventual appointment of an Army Chief of his choice shows the extent to which the institution is running the country. Imran may say otherwise but he's been no different.
But it is true that each Pakistani leader has tried a hand at independence – particularly on India policy - particularly Nawaz Sharif, who tried to mend fences, and got imprisoned for his pains. So did Imran, to a lesser extent. For India therefore, its not the choice which matters but the process. No Army Chief is that different from the other in terms of their perceptions on Indians.
However, a process that rests on due constitutional clauses and strengthens democracy, is what is best for Pakistanis and for everybody else. Except perhaps, for that nodding Mandarin doll in a quiet corner. But then discomfort from that quarter is a good thing too.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)