THE NEXT ARMY CHIEF
Who will be Pakistan’s next Army Chief? This is the big question - and one that will not be easy to settle for the Prime Minister, considering the many dimensions it represents.
The search for the Next Army Chief
Pakistan’s chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is due to retire shortly, after a sixyear stint in the office. He has already been on a three-year extension.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is also Defence and Foreign Minister. He is on record saying “he wants to disentangle the military from politics.” Holding the portfolios of Defence and Foreign Affairs to himself is in sync with that policy. In fact it has always been his fond desire to bring the military under civilian control. Its pursuit in the past led to the ouster of Gen. Karamat and the ugly showdown with Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
No doubt the military has meddled less in politics under Gen. Kayani. He has earned the repute of a “pragmatic leader willing to ease the
military’s grip on political affairs and publicly endorse democracy.” For his low-key manner, he is labeled “Quiet General of Pakistani politics.” And his public statements in support of the country’s transition to democracy have been reassuring, such as his statement in a speech just before the May election, saying that “a bad democracy was better than the best kind of dictatorship.”
Yet, hasty conclusions may be unwarranted. “Everyone says that under Kayani the army is now transformed and we can trust in its democratic credentials. But let’s not jump the gun,” a source in the government was quoted saying. “One era of soft military leadership does not make for a lasting legacy. The civilians will have to work hard to make sure everyone knows their limits.”
That no doubt is as realistic a summing up as possible. The military needs to prove over time that the change of heart is real, because, even under Kayani some generals have been heard grumbling quietly over his “soft attitude.” It remains to be seen whether the new army chief resists the pressure from his colleagues to win back the “lost ground” and exert his authority over the civilians or succumbs to it. Even a diplomatic source in Islamabad was quoted saying that “There are no guarantees the current status quo will last beyond Kayani.”
According to some observers the “new crop of generals is not even remotely as patient as (Kayani), with regard to the screw-ups of civilian leaders.” They foresee a “super-assertive army chief” trying to restore the former grandeur of his institution as his top priority.
But only a general removed from reality could entertain such ambition. The general’s patina has eroded over the years due to a series of misadventures. The 1971 debacle and the Kargil faux pas had already lowered them in public esteem. The Supreme Court ruling last year that “the military must stop interfering in politics,” gave another blow to their ambition. But Osama bin Laden’s killing on Pakistani soil was the coup de grace. For the ordinary citizens it was a gross violation of sovereignty, while the Abbottabad Commission called it a “national humiliation” that the army had failed to prevent.
Moreover, any general having ideas about reviving past “glory” would lead him into a collision course with the prime minister. That would be disastrous, because Nawaz has been known to battle with presidents to assert his writ. With one he went down fighting; the other he simply eased out.
The prime minister has to fill two top vacancies; one for the army chief, the other for the chief of general staff. Technically, Kayani would submit a short list of three names for each position. But the prime minister is not restricted to choose one of them. He may, if he wishes, select someone from outside the list like his predecessor, Bhutto. Yet, such possibility is remote.
Picking Gen. Kayani’s successor is therefore going to be a “helluva” challenge for Nawaz Sharif; indeed the defining moment of his third term. He may adopt the Buggin’s turn method under which the job would go to the most senior. Or, he may apply the merit yardstick. But that would be a gamble as happened in the past. Or, he may even grant Gen. Kayani a third three-year extension. But this would be unlikely, because extensions at the top block the chance of junior officers from promotion that leads to frustration and undermines morale.
Understandably Nawaz would like a man he could trust and who, like Gen. Kayani, keeps the army aloof from meddling in politics. More importantly, the new pick should be trusted to support the prime minister’s foreign policy initiatives at the top of which is fence-mending with India, unlike Pervez Musharraf, who was planning Kargil while Nawaz was welcoming the Indian prime minister in Lahore.
However, a trustworthy person is not the same as a yes-man. Picking a “yes-man” may be tempting. But it has proved delusional with tragic consequences in the past. Bhutto appointed Ziaul Haq over the heads of several of his senior officers, because he had appeared very docile. And Nawaz Sharif, likewise, chose Musharraf. How it worked out is history that should never be allowed to repeat itself.
And last, but not the least, if the choice also receives a nod from America that would be a plus point. The U.S. is withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. The process will be completed by the end of next year. Pakistan has a crucial role to play in “post-occupation” Afghanistan. Many problems are looming, including internecine conflict leading to fullblown civil war and India’s expanding clout with the Afghan government through economic assistance.
While the government would be working out a policy to counter India’s expanding influence in Afghanistan, the next army chief will have to give the best advice to the prime minister with regard to the military strategy on these volatile issues.
Islamabad grapevine is currently abuzz with speculations. A guessing game is going on in the drawing rooms of Islamabad. Those in the race include Lieutenant General Rashad Mahmood, the current chief of general staff, Lieutenant General Tariq Khan, who is considered pragmatic on US relations, and Lieutenant General Haroon Aslam, the most senior officer after Kayani.
On whose head the crown ultimately rests remains to be seen.