While Pakistan is in the deadly grip of devastating floods and political uncertainties, it appears the most interesting piece of news is the new army chief’s appointment on October 29, when the baton will be passed over by General Qamar Javed Bajwa to the new holder of the most powerful office in the country.
In democratic countries all over the world, the change in command of the army is a routine affair. It hardly ever becomes a controversy in the media. In Pakistan, however, it is a completely different story — it becomes the hottest topic discussed in the public sphere.
Imran Khan jumped the gun when he voiced his views publicly about who should take charge as the new chief. In response, the defense minister assured the people that the appointment would be on merit from among the senior most army generals.
Meanwhile, we could only hope for a time when such appointments are not politicized. This would be possible only if attitudes towards democracy change.
Why is so much importance associated with the army chief’s appointment every three years? The answer lies in the murky political history of the country. Immediately after the independence in 1947, and after the murder of Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan witnessed a shameful game of power politics when governments fell again and again, and the change of command in the political power structure became a joke.
During this period, the military continued to grow in strength, and took over the country in October 1958 under the command of General Ayub Khan. The Ayub era from 1958 to 1969 was a period of development and stability but the country was transformed into a security state.
Ayub Khan was appointed as the first Pakistani commander in chief in 1951 by superseding two generals, namely General Akbar Khan and General N.A.M. Raza, and immediately after taking over, General Musa Khan was handpicked by Ayub Khan as the commander in chief, after superseding three senior generals.
After General Musa Khan’s retirement, General Yahya Khan was appointed as the army chief by Ayub Khan in 1966 after superseding two senior generals in service. All these appointments did not create a controversy as the country was firmly in grip of a powerful army ruler back then.
After the tragic events of the 1971 war, the era of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ushered in. Bhutto appointed General Tikka Khan as the first chief of the army staff (COAS) after the unceremonious sacking of General Gul Hassan, who had taken over after the fall of Yahya Khan government.
Hassan was supposedly instrumental in getting Bhutto to the President’s office. But, later, he became a real or imagined threat to Bhutto, and he had to be sacked.
For change, the establishment must play a positive role and ensure the game of favourites discontinues.
The tradition of supersession continued when Bhutto appointed General Ziaul Haq as the army chief by superseding seven senior generals in March 1976. Bhutto wanted a sycophant and a ‘yes man’, but Zia proved otherwise, and eventually sent Bhutto to his grave through a judicial process or a judicial murder.
General Ziaul Haq has the dubious distinction of being the longest reigning dictator of the country. He ruled with an iron hand from 1976 to 1988. He kept extending his rule every three years and remained the army chief throughout his tenure as president. To hold on to power, Zia appointed his handpicked Vice Chiefs of Army Staff General Sawar Khan, General Iqbal, General K.M. Arif — and General Mirza Aslam Beg in March 1987.
Beg became COAS after Zia’s death in a crash on August 17, 1988.
Zia’s death was followed by a game of musical chairs between the two main political parties. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif took charge one after the other. Both of them were cognizant of the army’s role in the politics of the country.
It is perhaps incompetence of our insecure elected leaders that results in appointment of out of turn favourites or pliable army chiefs. For the first time, the PPP government stuck to the principal of seniority and appointed General Jehangir Karamat as the army chief in January 1986. The PPP also extended General Ashfaq Kayani term in 2010 during Asif Zardari’s presidency.
Nawaz Sharif is the only prime minister who has had the privilege of appointing five army chiefs — General Asif Nawaz in 1991, General Pervez Musharraf in 1998, General Ziauddin Butt in 1999, General Raheel Sharif in 2013 and Qamar Javed Bajwa in 2016. Except for General Asif Nawaz, all other generals appointed by Sharif superseded their seniors.
President Ghulam Ishaq Khan appointed General Waheed Kakar in 1993 after superseding six senior generals — and ironically General Kakar was responsible for Ishaq Khan’s exit from the president’s office. Likewise, the out of turn appointee of Nawaz Sharif, General Musharraf, was responsible for booting out Sharif.
Sharif had wanted to sack Musharraf and appoint General Ziauddin Butt as the chief.
The country’s constitution stipulates broadly under Article 243(3) and Schedule V-A of the Rules of Business that the “President has the authority to appoint the Services Chiefs on the recommendation of the PM: officers – of and above the rank of Lt Gens in the three services.”
Strangely, other than an eligibility prerequisite of having commanded a corps, there is no stringent promotion criteria regulated by the army selection boards.
November 29 is just around the corner. The appointment of the next COAS must be finalized by that date. For change, the establishment must play a positive role and ensure the game of favourites discontinues.