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Who will be the next army chief?

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ISLAMABAD: It is almost time for the government to make what is likely to be one of the toughest calls of its tenure: who to appoint as the next chief of Pakistan’s Army.

A senior Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader — a member of the federal cabinet — hinted in background discussions that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif could initiate discussions on the appointment by the end of August, and pos­s­ibly take a decision by mid-September.

The general perception is that he will consult his allies in the ruling coalition before making a final call. A source in the Pakistan Peoples Party, however, suggested that the party may not want to get involved as it is the prime minister’s prerogative to make the decision.

According to Article 243(3) of the Constitution, the president appoints the services chiefs on the recommendation of the prime minister.

Schedule V-A of the Rules of Business, which elaborates the cases to be presented to the prime minister for his approval, states that: “[…] the appointment of, and above the rank of, lieutenant-general in the army and equivalent ranks in the other Defence Services will be made by the prime minister in consultation with the president.”

The manner in which this process plays out, however, is less clearly defined in the rule books. Nor have any specific criteria been laid down for consideration for elevation, except for the vague condition that the general chosen to lead the army should have commanded a corps.

The tradition is that General Headquarters (GHQ) sends a list of the four to five senior-most lieutenant-generals, along with their personnel files, to the Ministry of Defence, which then forwards them to the prime minister to pick the officer he finds best suited to the role.

Theoretically, the defence ministry can vet the names before presenting them to the prime minister, but that does not usually happen and the ministry acts merely as a post office.

The credentials of the generals are then deliberated either at Prime Minister’s Office or in the cabinet. The matter comes down to the prime minister’s ‘informal consultation’ with the outgoing army chief, his own perceptions and his discussions with his closest advisors.

Keen observers also talk about an ‘institutional recommendation’, which is given to the prime minister about a particular candidate. However, at least two former defence secretaries have rubbished this claim. They insist that it is only the outgoing army chief, during his ‘informal consultation’ with the prime minister, who provides personal input on who he thinks should succeed him.

Of the ten army chiefs the country has had since 1972, five were appointed by the incumbent’s elder brother, Mian Nawaz Sharif, in separate tenures as prime minister. The elder Sharif was repeatedly criticised for appointing officers he saw as an ‘apna banda’ (his man). Ironically, none of the appointments worked out very well for him.

The experience has reportedly left the Sharifs with the belief that they will never quite get it right. Some PML-N leaders said in background interviews that they have, therefore, more or less decided that instead of succumbing to the temptation of finding an ‘ideal’ candidate, they will make the appointment based on seniority alone.

“Then, no matter how things turn out, we will at least be content that no personal choices were involved,” one party leader said.

However, another group within the party speculates that PM Shehbaz Sharif may simply go along with the current chief’s advice.

Transitioning out

Appointed in 2016, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa is set to retire in the last week of November. The army chief’s appointment is meant to be for three years, but Gen Bajwa was given an additional three-year term in 2019 after a bit of political drama. Then-prime minister Imran Khan had given him an extension in August, but the Supreme Court later demanded legislation on the re-appointment of the services chiefs.

Parliament complied in January 2020, allowing the prime minister to extend the tenure of services chiefs at his discretion. The legislation had, however, fixed 64 as the age at which a service chief must be retired.

Gen Bajwa, still 61, can therefore be eligible for another term. This technicality had led to speculation that the incumbent may be seeking or interested in another extension. But according to a military source, Gen Bajwa has communicated to those around him that he will retire in November. Inter-Services Public Relations, too, has confirmed that the chief is, indeed, retiring.

The army chief’s is not the only four-star position that will fall vacant in November. Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) Gen Nadeem Raza will also be retiring at the same time. The simultaneous appointment of two four-star generals gives the government a little bit of space to pick a commander for the army without causing too much consternation among the top brass.

Interestingly, four of the six senior lieutenant-generals at the time of Gen Bajwa’s retirement are from the same batch. The seniority of this lot is determined on a technical basis — ie, through the PA number assigned to them from their training days at the PMA — and may or may not be of consequence when the new CJCSC and COAS are chosen. Among the other two, one is senior to almost the entire lot, while the other one is relatively junior.

Lt-Gen Asim Munir

At the time when the decision to appoint the next CJCSC and COAS is made, Lt-Gen Asim Munir will be the senior-most among the lot. Although he was promoted to the rank of two-star general in September 2018, he took charge two months later. As a result, his four-year tenure as Lt-Gen will end on November 27, around the same time when the incumbent CJCSC and COAS will be doffing their army uniform. Since the recommendations and decisions for the appointment of the two four-star generals are to be made a little earlier, it would be for Gen Bajwa to decide if his name is to be included and for the prime minister to make the final call. He is an outstanding officer, but because of the technicalities involved, he may remain the proverbial dark horse.

Lt- Gen Munir entered the service via the Officers Training School (OTS) programme in Mangla, and was commissioned into the Frontier Force Regiment. He has been a close aide of the incumbent COAS ever since he commanded troops in the Force Command Northern Areas as a brigadier under Gen Bajwa, who was then Commander X Corps. He was later appointed DG Military Intelligence in early 2017, and in October next year was made the ISI chief. However, his stint as the top intelligence officer turned out to be the shortest ever, as he was replaced by Lt-Gen Faiz Hamid within eight months, on the insistence of then-PM Imran Khan. He was posted as Gujranwala Corps commander, a position he held for two years, before being moved to the GHQ as Quartermaster General.

Lt-Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza

In the current cohort, Lt-Gen Mirza is senior-most amongst the four candidates belonging to the same batch. He hails from the Sindh Regiment; the same parent unit as the outgoing CJCSC, Gen Nadeem Raza. He has had an impressive career in the army, particularly in senior leadership positions during the past seven years. Lt-Gen Mirza came to prominence as director-general military operations (DGMO) during the last two years of Gen Raheel Sharif’s tenure. In that role, he was part of Gen Sharif’s core team at GHQ, which supervised the military operation against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militants in North Waziristan. Further, he was closely involved in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) that brokered intra-Afghan talks involving Pakistan, China, Afghanistan and the United States. Besides, he was also a member of the Sartaj Aziz-led committee on reforms for Gilgit-Baltistan.

After his promotion to the three-star rank, he was appointed chief of general staff, effectively making him the second-most powerful person in the army after the COAS. In that role, he was closely engaged in crucial decision-making related to national security and foreign affairs. He also joined former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in strategic talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in 2021.

In October 2021, he was posted as Corps Commander Rawalpindi to enable him to acquire operational experience and become eligible to be considered for the top posts.

A military source, while commenting on his profile, said he was the clear frontrunner for either of the two posts of COAS and CJCSC.

Lt-Gen Azhar Abbas

Lt-Gen Abbas is most experienced in Indian affairs among the current brass. Currently, he is the chief of general staff (CGS), effectively running the army with direct oversight of both operations and intelligence directorates at GHQ. Prior to that, he commanded the Rawalpindi-based but Kashmir-centric and politically-significant X Corps, which indicates that he enjoys the complete trust of the present army chief. It was during his time as commander X Corps that the Indian and Pakistani armies reached an understanding on respecting the 2003 ceasefire agreement along the LOC, and it was Lt-Gen Abbas’s job to ensure compliance on it.

Previously, Lt-Gen Abbas served as commandant of the Infantry School, Quetta. He was the personal staff officer of the former army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif — a position which gave him a ringside view of the decision-making processes at the highest-level. That stint also enabled him to interact with the PML-N leadership as well as the top leadership of friendly countries. After that, he commanded the 12th Infantry Division based in Murree, from where he was responsible for Azad Jammu & Kashmir.

Lt-Gen Nauman Mehmood

Belonging to the Baloch Regiment, Lt-Gen Mehmood is currently president of the National Defence University. He also has extensive experience as chief instructor at the Command and Staff College, Quetta. He has commanded an infantry division based in North Waziristan. From there, he was posted as director-general (Analysis) at the ISI, playing a crucial role in foreign policy analysis from a national security perspective. That posting provided him with the opportunity of liaising with foreign intelligence agencies on behalf of the ISI.

On his promotion as a three-star general in 2019, he was appointed inspector-general of Communications & Information Technology, GHQ. In December 2019, he was sent to the Peshawar-based XI Corps. From there, he oversaw security along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and its fencing at a time when the US withdrew its forces.

In November 2021, he handed over command of the XI Corps to Lt-Gen Faiz Hamid.

Lt-Gen Faiz Hamid

Lt-Gen Hamid, too, belongs to the Baloch Regiment and is one of the most widely-discussed contenders among the competitors for the top office. Gen Bajwa and Lt-Gen Hamid have reportedly known each other for long. As brigadier, Lt-Gen Hamid served as chief of staff of the X Corps under Gen Bajwa, who was then commanding the corps.

At the time of Gen Bajwa’s appointment as COAS, Lt-Gen Hamid was a two-star general and was commanding an infantry division in Pano Aqil, Sindh. Soon after his promotion as army chief, Gen Bajwa posted him as director-general (Counter-Intelligence) at ISI, where he was not only responsible for internal security, but also political affairs.

After his promotion to the three-star rank, he was initially appointed adjutant-general at the GHQ in April 2019. But only two months later, in a surprise move, he was appointed DG ISI. In that role, Lt-Gen Hamid was active in supporting the government on issues as diverse as renegotiating contracts with power-sector IPPs, reforming governance, and reviving the economy etc, aside from traditional foreign policy issues and national security challenges.

In the last phase of his stint as head of the ISI, he became focus of a controversy between Imran Khan and the COAS as the latter had decided to post him as commander of the Peshawar Corps and the former was not willing to relieve him. He was ultimately posted out to Peshawar, where he served for less than a year before being moved to the Bahawalpur Corps.

Some political pundits say it might be difficult, if not impossible, for the PML-N leadership to consider him for the post of the next COAS due to the highly-publicised nature of his role as ISI chief during the last government’s tenure.

Lt-Gen Mohammad Amir

Lt-Gen Amir belongs to the Artillery Regiment and is, at present, commanding the XXX Corps in Gujranwala. He is considered a close confidant of Gen Bajwa. Previously, he was adjutant-general at the GHQ. As major-general, he commanded the 10 Infantry Division stationed in Lahore from 2017-18. He has also served as director-general Staff Duties at the COAS Secretariat, giving him considerable experience in both GHQ and command positions. Prior to that, he was military secretary to then President Asif Zardari from 2011-13.