By Amitava Mukherjee*
A war of authority between the civil and military authorities of Pakistan over the selection of a new army chief is likely to take place as Raheel Sharif, the incumbent chief of the Pakistan army, is set to retire in coming November. Already the army has forced Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, to appoint retired Lieutenant General Zamirul Hassan Shah as the new defence secretary, although the civilian government had at first rejected Zamirul Hassan’s name and called for a change in army’s recommendation. But, the army refused to budge.
Speculation is rife in concerned circles that the ongoing tension in Indo-Pak relations may influence the ultimate selection of the next Pakistan army chief and that a hawk may occupy the position. That the army had felt comfortable enough to send the name of a retired Lieutenant General for the post of the defence secretary is a clear indication that Nawaz Sharif has lost much of his political as well as governmental authority. But Sharif, the wily politician, must have had enough of the army’s shenanigans and it is equally probable that he might choose the next army chief depending on the latter’s attitude to the civilian government.
There are four senior Lieutenant Generals in line from whom Nawaz Sharif is expected to pick up his next army chief. The senior most among them is Zubair Hayat, the present Chief of General Staff (CGS). Hayat is a voracious reader and is known to be an ‘intellectual’ in the armed forces. In the race for the army top slot, Hayat is now in an advantageous position because his previous stint as the Director General of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which looks after the country’s nuclear command and strategic assets, had given him an opportunity to work directly and in a close manner with Nawaz Sharif.
Zubair Hayat is very much conversant with the culture at the General Headquarters (GHQ) because he had once served as the Principal Staff Officer to General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the previous Pakistan army chief. His previous postings as the Corps Commander,Bahawalpur, the General Officer Commanding(GOC), Sialkot and the Chief of the Staff Duties Directorate will definitely go in his favour. But he has never served in any conflict zone. It will be interesting to watch as to what extent Nawaz Sharif attaches importance to this limitation.
Zubair Hayat’s close contestant will be Ishfaq Ahmed, a previous CGS and presently the Multan Corps Commander. Compared to Hayat Ishfaq Ahmed has much more operational experience. Ishfaq must be a hot favourite with Raheel Sharif, the incumbent army chief, as the former is the actual architect of the blueprint of Zarb-e-Azab, the army operation against Islamic militants in North Waziristan. Two factors may tilt the scale in Ishfaq’s favour- his previous stint as the CGS and his present position of the commander of a mechanized corps which is very prestigious in army hierarchy.
There are two other Lieutenant Generals whom Nawaz Sharif must keep in consideration while choosing the next army chief. They are Javed Iqbal Ramday and Qamar Javed Bajwa. Both have experiences of commanding corps and both are known to be skilful generals. Bajwa, now the Inspector General of Training and Evaluation in the GHQ, once commanded the 10 Corps which is the largest of its kind in the Pakistan army and is responsible for guarding the Line of Control in Kashmir. Similarly Ramday is now leading the Bahawalpur Corps and was previously the GOC, Swat.
Three other generals namely Mazhar Jamil, Syed Wajid Hussain and Najibullah Khan may come into the picture at any time.
But, the central figure in this all important exercise will no doubt be Nawaz Sharif himself. This will be the fifth time when he chooses the next army chief- a unique record he holds among all the prime ministers of Pakistan. He chose Pervez Musharraf for the top slot superseding many senior generals. But in return he got an army coup and exile from the country. He again selected Raheel Sharif, the incumbent army chief, over legitimate claims of at least two senior generals but the ambitious army commander-in-chief has nearly made Nawaz Sharif a titular head.
But this time the Pakistan prime minister may try to break free from the army yoke under which he must be chafing for a long time. First of all, going against the civilian governments declared policy, Raheel Sharif, the army chief, had stymied peace process with the Taliban by launching the Zarb-e-Azab without governmental or parliamentary sanction. Then he forced Nawaz Sharif to abandon legal proceedings against Pervez Musharraf. Peace process with India also took a back seat.
Still Nawaz Sharif adjusted with the overbearing attitude of the army and by a strange arrangement the army took over Pakistan’s foreign and nuclear policy and all security related issues in Karachi as well as in the Afghan border. Nawaz Sharif was left only with the economy of the country and Punjab, his home turf. But after the gory mayhem of Christians at a park in Lahore in last March the army took control of the security of the Punjab province and publicly emphasized that it was under orders of Raheel Sharif and not that of the prime minister.
Now will Nawaz Sharif try to reestablish his authority by appointing a pliant general as the army chief?
*Amitava Mukherjee is a senior Indian journalist and commentator. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]