Army Chief Succession Bigger Deal in Pakistan Than Other Issues

It has long been said about Pakistan, that like Prussia instead of the state having an army, the Pakistan army has a state to run. There have been 4 military dictators, 3 periods of military rule, and numerous occasions when the Pakistani military establishment – a euphemism for the ubiquitous military and intelligence services – has either directly or indirectly decided which individual or political party remains in power.


In Pakistan, everyone knows the name of the Army chief, while they may nor may not remember the name of the Prime Minister. In this context, therefore who will be the next army chief is always a big issue.


The current incumbent, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, is due to retire – after six years – in end November 2022. Who will take over from him therefore is critical. Since, technically speaking, the prime minister appoints the next army chief, who is prime minister is also important.


As an editorial in Dawn noted, the “fight for control over who will get to make the decision has been ongoing since before the PDM and PTI swapped their roles as government and opposition.

Several PDM leaders have confirmed that one of the key motivating factors behind the vote of no-confidence earlier this year was the belief that Imran Khan had already decided on a certain ‘favourite’ general for the top post and, through the appointment, would seek to extend his reign for another term or two. To them, foiling Mr Khan’s plans had been necessary for survival.”


On the other hand, for Imran Khan the issue is also “a bargaining chip. Facing an ouster in March, he allegedly offered the current chief an ‘indefinite’ extension in return for help in thwarting the PDM. Now, as the law gives the new prime minister the privilege of choosing the army chief at his discretion, Mr Khan has attempted to block PM Shehbaz Sharif from exercising that right by attacking his government as unfit to make that decision. He once again proposed an extension, albeit for a shorter period, just weeks ago to have the incumbent stay on till a new government is sworn in and can decide on his successor. Meanwhile, the prime minister claims Mr Khan also approached him through an intermediary for a joint decision on the succession. Mr Khan has rubbished the backdoor talks claim, and the PDM has made it clear it will not negotiate. The stand-off between the two can turn ugly if not handled firmly.”


The Dawn editorial cautions that when the time comes to select the next army chief, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif “must set aside other considerations and make his decision strictly based on each candidate’s professional strengths and weaknesses. The experiments that were tried in the past should not be repeated again. If they are to remain apolitical, the armed forces need a leader who is more concerned about the defence of the country rather than the ambitions of its politicians.”


Whether that happens, time alone will tell. If we go by the past, army chiefs have always done what their institution wanted them to do, not what the civilian prime minister who chose them, wanted. Hopefully, this time round, the army as an institution wants to stay out of politics and General Bajwa’s successor will continue with this.

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