When Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif made a suggestion that the army as an institution should develop an internal mechanism for the appointment of its chief, like the one judiciary has evolved, he exposed the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government’s nervousness in exercising its constitutional power to appoint the new chief of army staff (COAS) — after the incumbent army chief retires in November 2022.
Comparing the appointment of chief justice of Pakistan (CJP) with that of COAS is outlandish. Judiciary is an organ of the state and based on the principle of separation of power. The judicial appointments must be made with complete independence from the executive. The army, on the other hand, is an arm of the executive, and politically, administratively and constitutionally, it must have no independent existence. It is meant to protect the state from external and internal security threats. And, because it is subservient to the executive, appointments within it are also subject to executive’s prerogative.
The judiciary rose in power in the post- Musharraf period. Now, judges of the superior judiciary are granted the same status as the military top brass. But this state of affairs doesn’t change Pakistan’s constitutional reality. The country’s constitution is based on separation of power, and the state power is entrusted with the executive (prime minister and his cabinet), legislature (both houses of the parliament) and judiciary (high and supreme court). In the constitutional arrangement, the military doesn’t have an independent existence. It is an arm of the executive — therefore subservient to it.
So, what made Khawaja Asif, a seasoned politician, make a statement on the appointment of the next COAS so far removed from the constitutional reality of the country? Maybe, because, the government is not familiar with the internal wrangling within the army over the political situation and over the impending appointment of new COAS, or the government, which presides over a fragile coalition, prefers to stay clear of any controversy that may ensue after the appointment of a new COAS in November this year.
In the post-Zia and post-Musharraf political situations, the executive organ of the state conceded ground to the over assertive military top brass. But somebody has to put the genie back into the bottle.
Reports about the internal wrangling within the army have been doing rounds in Islamabad since April 2022, when Imran Khan was removed from the prime minister’s office through a no-confidence motion. The reports got further reinforced when the local media reported that General Qamar Javed Bajwa had faced a tough time at the hands of his officers in explaining the ouster of Imran Khan. This was followed by statements and counter statements from all sides. “The government wants to stay clear of controversies. We have our plate full,” said a PML-N stalwart on the condition of anonymity.
Surrendering the power of appointing a new COAS to the outgoing army chief would amount to making the executive an empty shell. The Pakistan military’s institutional integrity is more important than the personal ambitions of individuals and the reluctance of the ruling party to perform their constitutional duties. The problem is that institutional interests of the military have outgrown the logic of the state. In the post-Zia and post-Musharraf political situations, the executive organ of the state conceded ground to the over assertive military top brass. But somebody has to put the genie back into the bottle.
Of course while appointing the new COAS, the prime minister must not repeat the old mistake of attempting to control the institution through an individual. Examples of Zia and Musharraf are enough to make political leaders realise the mistakes. The prime minister must create an enabling environment to let the new COAS act and serve as a non-partisan officer, irrespective of who heads the executive. In Pakistan the office of COAS has an external dimension and any person occupying the executive could ignore this external dimension at his own peril.