Pakistan's New Army Chief: Can Sharif Duo Learn From Past & Hit The Bull's Eye?

Nawaz, who has learnt no lessons from the past ,will favour Asim Munir's appointment who is supposed to be anti-Khan

5 min read

The most important appointment that any head of a Pakistani government makes, is that of the country’s Army Chief. It is now for Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to formally choose the next head of Pakistan’s all-powerful institution.

Clearly, Shehbaz has been primarily consulting his elder brother Nawaz Sharif who is in London. Nawaz who was thrice the country’s Prime Minister, appointed five chiefs during his tenure.

Shehbaz Govt Picking Brains on New Appointee

However, in addition to Nawaz, as Shehbaz heads a coalition government, he has to take the views of his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML(N)'s) primary partners—former President Asif Zardari, the real power behind the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Maulana Fazlur Rehman— the leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) into account. He has consulted them too.

More importantly though, Shehbaz has to ensure that his choice goes down well with the Army rank and file and especially among the senior generals. This is despite the tradition that the Pakistan army rallies around a new chief.

An exception was in 1999 in the wake of the bitter differences that had erupted over the Kargil disaster between Nawaz, the then Prime Minister, and the then-Army chief Pervez Musharraf. The Army’s leading generals did not accept Musharraf’s dismissal and the appointment of General Ziauddin as chief.

It staged a coup and the Sharifs through the intervention of the Saudis finally went into exile. Musharraf initially became the Chief Executive and later the President of Pakistan.

No Comeback for Gen Bajwa

The current Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa’s extended term expires on 29 November. He has made it well known that he is not willing to accept an extension. He is making his farewell calls on different formations and garrisons of the Pakistan Army.

Yet, as I write these lines, no successor has been appointed. Obviously, the appointment of Bajwa’s successor is not proving easy and is becoming controversial. A survey of the past and current state of play regarding Bajwa’s successor’s appointment reveals the fissures within the country’s political process and to an extent in the Army as well.

Indeed, one of the principal reasons which led to a falling out between former Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army chief Qamar Bajwa was the latter’s desire that Khan would not be the person who would appoint his successor.

Ironically, it was the Army Bajwa led at the time of Pakistani elections in 2018 which was responsible for Imran Khan’s victory and thereafter, becoming Prime Minister. Both Khan and the army had emphasised till October last year that the elected government and the institution were ‘on the same page’.

Yet, when Khan crossed a red line in objecting to Bajwa changing the Director-General of the ISI—General Faiz Hamid in October last year that the two fell apart. Thereafter, it was only a question of time before Bajwa worked behind the scenes to ensure that the alliance led by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party was ousted from power and was replaced by an opposition alliance—the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).

Dramatic political developments occurred in Pakistan during March and April which led to what Bajwa wanted and Shahbaz Sharif became Prime Minister.


Lessons for Sharif Govt From Past Appointments

For the record, the Army under Bajwa proclaimed that it had decided to become ‘apolitical’ and had nothing to do with the change in government. No one in Pakistan or elsewhere believed this assertion.

On his part, Khan did not go quietly into the night. He imputed the changeover to a conspiracy hatched by the US with the PDM government as collaborators. He also evoked substantial support among the public as shown in his victory in the by-elections held in the Punjab and widely attended public meetings. There is little doubt that he is the most popular civilian leader in Pakistan today.

Khan also imputed motives to the Army and relations between him and the force, especially Bajwa turned sour. He wanted elections to be held immediately so that a new elected Prime Minister (which he obviously thought would be he himself) could appoint the next army chief.

This would have entailed Bajwa’s extension. Neither Bajwa nor the PDM government were willing for this. Through the months, Bajwa has effectively ensured that Imran Khan, despite all the efforts he made, could not succeed in ousting the PDM government.

With Khan neutralised on the issue of the appointment of Bajwa’s successor, it would have been wise for the Sharifs to ask the Army command to expedite sending a list of eligible generals and choose perhaps, the senior-most from among them on the day of Bajwa’s retirement. Experience should have taught them that if they overlooked the senior-most and favoured one lower in the eligible list, he would not show any sympathy or loyalty towards them.

This was the case with four of the five generals chosen by Nawaz Sharif—Abdul Waheed Kakar, Pervez Musharraf, Raheel Sharif and Qamar Bajwa himself; till, of course, Bajwa fell out with Khan.


Can Pak Army Really Stay Apolitical?

The first Army chief chosen by Nawaz Sharif in 1991—Asif Nawaz Janjua died in office in what some believe were mysterious circumstances. All Army chiefs are really loyal only to their force and the ideology of the country which is rooted in the Two-nation theory.

Also, while the present army leadership is emphasising that the institution has decided to become apolitical, it is impossible to conceive that the force will be willing to give up its hold on the country’s security and critical areas of foreign policy and would not intervene behind the scenes on political issues too.

What appears from the reports circulating in Pakistan is that while Shahbaz may be pragmatic, Nawaz has learnt no lessons from past experiences. He is believed to favour the appointment of Asim Munir who is supposed to be anti-Khan.

Will an Anti-Khan Appointment Seal the Deal for Sharifs?

The problem is that Asim Nawaz retires from service two days before Bajwa does. Hence, he would technically be have to be given a two-day extension in service. It is believed that Bajwa does not favour such a course of action.

On the day of the Bajwa’s retirement, unless Asim Munir is given an extension, the five generals in order of seniority would be Shahid Shamshad Mirza, Azhar Abbas, Nauman Mehmood, Faiz Hamid and Mohammad Amir.

The non-controversial course for the Sharifs would be to appoint either Mirza or Abbas as chief and the one not chosen between them to be made Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff. Apart from ensuring that no fingers can be raised against them by anyone in the army, Khan would not be able to complain that a general has been chosen to ensure that he is disqualified before the next election. This would also make it difficult for President Arif Alvi would has to formally sign off on the Prime Minister’s choice to delay the appointment.

The million-dollar question is if Nawaz would act prudently. If the past is a guide, it would appear not and he may take a chance by choosing Munir or someone with whom he has reached an understanding howsoever it may turn out to be.

Khan has announced that the Long March would now reach Rawalpindi on 26 November. His object would be to pressure the chief elect and the PDM government to agree to early elections. It can be expected that most of the generals may not be happy with Khan disturbing a smooth changeover in the command of the army but an injured Khan is unlikely to be cautious. Thus, the coming week may be full of drama in Pakistan.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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