The Pakistani comeback kid, Nawaz Sharif climbed the greasy pole of power thrice but slipped back every time. Various factors contributed to his ascent and descent but one clearly visible strain in all his forays was his unyielding penchant for meddling in the promotion of top personnel of government. He instinctively attached a heavy premium to personal suitability, allowing it to override any other consideration in this. The disastrous consequence of his uncanny fetish was his cynical interference in promoting the top brass of the uniformed services, causing grave damage to his prospects in office.
To his detractors, what appeared to be his fatal flaw, was justified by his circle as a legitimate exercise of a constitutional right by a prime minister. He invariably found working with the top brass uncomfortable and faced consistent animosity from the military throughout his time as prime minister. In Pakistan, a supposedly routine change of the top military command has been transformed into a bone of contention as misplaced emphasis has been placed on it by consistently insecure political leadership that fails to appreciate that any incumbent it appoints will never switch his (there have been few women) loyalties from his institution and all his subsequent actions will governed by cumulative institutional priorities.
Nawaz Sharif was at the helm of affairs for 982 days from November 1990 to July 1993, 966 days between February 1997 and October 1999 and for 1,510 days from June 2013 to August 2017. This racks up a grand total of 3,458 days or 9.6 years in office, making him the longest-serving civilian head of government in Pakistan. Despite his short spurts in office, Nawaz Sharif was somehow given several chances to decide promotions for the top ranks of the army, navy and air force. Unlike with his civilian domain, however, he did not have to pull many levers when it came to military matters except for positioning his choice on the top.
During his three tenures, he appointed an unusual number of top four-star positions in all three military branches: 3 Chairmen Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC), 5 Chiefs of Army Staff (COAS), 3 Chiefs of Naval Staff (CNS) and 2 Chiefs of Air Staff (CAS). The methods he adopted, however, conveyed the impression that he never played straight while approving top appointments, particularly in the army.
At the inauspicious exit of Gen Raheel Sharif, Nawaz Sharif was granted the chance to appoint his fifth COAS, (or sixth if Ziauddin is taken into account) in sequence, making him the only civilian leader to ever decide the fate of more than one-third of COAS appointees!
In his first stint as PM in 1990, he inherited General Mirza Aslam Beg as COAS, Admiral Yastoor-ul-Haq Malik as Chief of Naval Staff and Air Chief Marshal Hakimullah as Chief of Air Staff. He could not clip Gen Beg’s wings as the COAS acted as a restive member of the power troika and openly defied the government’s stance on involvement in Iraq. It is alluded to that Nawaz Sharif played some role in undermining Gen Beg but the army resolved its affairs on its own, keeping the PM out of them and asking him to endorse the nomination of Gen Asif Janjua as COAS much earlier than the retirement of Gen Beg. Gen Beg, in turn, tactfully removed the ambitious Lt-Gen Hamid Gul. The resolution of this internal crisis by the army chucked Nawaz Sharif from the frying pan into the fire, as Gen Janjua refused to see eye to eye with him, with mutual distrust becoming so acrimonious that the PM was blamed for the untimely demise of Gen Janjua.
Gen Janjua’s sudden death on January 12, 1993 provided NS with the first opportunity to independently decide the top army appointment—but he was beaten by wily president Ghulam Ishaq Khan who succeeded in nominating Gen Waheed Kakar in January 1993. Both preceding COAS, Gens Beg and Janjua, were senior most when promoted. But the political tussle between the President and PM reignited the despised supersession row that had climaxed with Gen Zia’s promotion over six lieutenant generals. History repeated itself when Gen Kakar was promoted over four lieutenant generals (Rahim Dil Bhatti, Muhammad Ashraf, Farrakh Khan and Arif Bangash). Nawaz Sharif’s camp espoused the case of Lt Gen Farrakh Khan—not the senior most but number three on the seniority list—but to no avail. Predictably Nawaz Sharif’s association with Gen Kakar was not cordial as he ended up seeing the back of him after the constitutional crisis in July 1993.
In his second tenure, Nawaz Sharif inherited Gen Jahangir Karamat as COAS, Adm Mansur-ul-Haq as CNS and ACM Abbas Khattak as CAS. After Gen Kakar, the army tried to streamline promotions by promoting Gen Karamat on the basis of seniority. Nawaz Sharif, fresh from conquering ‘Choti’ or the family seat of president Farooq Leghari, whom he cornered to sign away his powers of dissolving the National Assembly, was apparently quite comfortable with Karachi-born Gen Karamat and assigned him the dual responsibility of Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, a position that had become contentious within the three uniformed services owing to its supposedly important role in managing nuclear assets. However, it was the growing assertiveness of the prime minister that Gen Karamat fell victim to, and his mild nature encouraged Nawaz Sharif to demand his resignation over an issue of no significance in any light.
The misplaced assertiveness allowed Nawaz Sharif the second opportunity to ride roughshod onto the hitherto restricted domain, which he gleefully did. He ignored all advice to adhere to seniority and let the senior-most Lt Gen Ali Kuli Khan become the next chief. He had an uncomfortable relationship with his cabinet colleague Gohar Ayub Khan (married to Lt Gen Ali Kuli’s sister). Nawaz was also mindful that after dismissing the second Benazir government, Farooq Leghari wanted to carry out an extensive cleansing campaign and was hopeful that his government would be allowed to function longer than constitutionally mandated. But the coterie of generals led by Lt Gen Moinuddin Haider, Corps Commander Lahore, in cahoots with Shahbaz Sharif, insisted on holding elections in 90 days. It was actually the advice of Lt Gen Haider to appoint the ‘rootless’ Gen Musharraf that paved the way for his elevation as COAS over two senior generals: Ali Kuli Khan and Khalid Nawaz (Gen Haider was rewarded earlier for his efforts by being made Sindh Governor after Nawaz Sharif’s second stint as PM).
The melodrama of removing his own irksome appointee, Gen Musharraf, only served to highlight Nawaz Sharif’s fundamental naiveté when it came to understanding the psyche of the uniformed services. It was more a sign of desperation than confidence that propelled him to behave in such a suicidal fashion. It is equally surprising to see Lt Gen Ziauddin Butt (actually an Urdu-speaking Khwaja) successfully sell to Nawaz Sharif the idea that an engineer officer could become COAS, something that never happened before (and after) as the infantry, artillery and armoured corps always rule the roost despite considering engineers fellow combatants. He was probably never informed that as much as possible the army avoids assigning the top command to an intelligence chief and Gen Kayani was the only DG ISI to become COAS and that too after being made kosher by being promoted to four stars and appointed VCOAS.
It is an irony of fate that Nawaz Sharif was repeatedly given the chance to dabble with deciding the change of army command and it is equally ironic that he never hesitated to play a devious hand. In his third stint as PM, the desire to ascend again became instrumental in appointing the new COAS despite signs that Gen Kayani had orchestrated an orderly change of baton by placing two senior-most generals at the helm: Lt Gen Haroon Aslam as prospective CJCSC and his anointed successor as COAS, Lt Gen Rashad Mahmood, serving as CGS. However, soon it was parroted ad nauseum that the PM would not budge from applying the seniority principle, which implied that Haroon Aslam was in the run for the COAS slot. To show his upper hand, Nawaz Sharif decided to hold off the decision to almost the last day and its subsequent announcement disappointed both the top contenders as Gen Raheel Sharif was brought in, superseding them. Initially grateful, Raheel Sharif tried to step out of the shadow of favouritism and soon the familiar spectre of civil-military imbalance reared its head.
At the inauspicious exit of Gen Raheel Sharif, as luck would have it, Nawaz Sharif was granted another chance to appoint yet another Chief, his fifth (or sixth if Ziauddin is taken into account) in sequence, making him the only civilian leader to ever decide the fate of more than one-third of COAS appointees! The army again managed to lay down an orderly succession plan, by indicating CGS Lt Gen Zubair Mahmood Hayat as CJCSC and Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed, Corps Commander Multan, as COAS. It gave NS a massive hint by taking the PM to Khairpur Tamewali (the site of Gen Zia’s plane crash) where Lt Gen Ishfaq was conducting military exercise Raad-ul-Barq as late as November 16, 2016 (the change of command was due on November 29). But Nawaz Sharif had other ideas. It was reported that Lt Gen Ishfaq’s brusque manner irritated the PM during meetings when the general was CGS and it was known that his premature transfer to Multan was the outcome of such displeasure. Lt Gen Bajwa, the dark horse, was subsequently elevated out of turn but he soon felt the need to come out of the shadows of favouritism orchestrated by the PM camp, and in an unprecedented style, ‘rejected’ the prime ministerial missive about the security-related Dawn leak.
NS was probably never informed that as much as possible the army avoids assigning the top command to an intelligence chief and Gen Kayani was the only DG ISI to become COAS and that too after being made kosher by being promoted to four stars and appointed VCOAS
In addition to appointing the chiefs, Nawaz Sharif also appointed three CJCSCs: Gen Shamim Alam Khan after the retirement of Adm Iftikhar Sirohi in November 1991, Gen Jahangir Karamat on additional charge basis on the retirement of ACM Farooq Feroze Khan in October 1997 and Gen Musharraf, also on additional charge, after the resignation of Gen Karamat in 1998. He removed one of them and the other removed him.
Adm Saeed Muhammad Khan was made CNS during the first tenure of Nawaz Sharif in November 1991. Nawaz Sharif removed Adm Mansur-ul-Haq as CNS in May 1997 and appointed Adm Fasih Bukhari as CNS in his place. Adm Bukhari protested, however, and tendered his resignation in October 1999 upon being surpassed by the appointment of Gen Musharraf as CJCSC. In his place, Nawaz Sharif appointed Adm Abdul Aziz Mirza as CNS and he was later sent as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia by Gen Musharraf.
Nawaz Sharif also approved the promotion of ACM Farooq Feroze Khan as CAS in March 1991, his first promotion of a four-star officer. Farooq Feroze Khan served a long term of seven years as a four-star officer with an extension of one year as air chief and three years as CJCSC. In addition, he also served as PIA MD. The promotion of ACM Pervaiz Mehdi Qureshi was also approved by Nawaz Sharif in November 1997.
Ali Siddiqi is a former bureaucrat and runs an academic training outfit in Karachi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org