The days and months ahead could turn out to be profoundly consequential for Pakistan as on the one hand the courts cases and movement against the alleged financial corruption of Prime Minister and his family, spearheaded by opposition leader Imran Khan, may result in something tangible whereas in the economic sphere, the potentially historic, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project may also be given final shape. However, the most consequential decision in this period, as always, would be the appointment of new army chief of the country by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. By the time these lines would appear in print PM Sharif would have appointed the new army chief and the incumbent commander in chief General Raheel Sharif would have retired in case he is not given extension in service at the eleventh hour, which is quite unlikely.
The position of army chief is de facto the most powerful within the Pakistani state structure and herein lies the importance of the appointment of the next Chief of Army Staff (COAS). However, the most interesting aspect of the situation is that constitutionally, the appointment of the most powerful man, army chief, has to be made by the most powerful de jure office― the prime minister of Pakistan. It is important to note that elected prime ministers have been exercising their discretion in the appointments of army chiefs and at times overturned the list of senior generals provided by the General Headquarters (GHQ) through the Ministry of Defense for consideration for the position of army chief. For instance, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1973-77) appointed a junior general Zia-ul-Haq ahead of several senior generals. Likewise, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his second term in office (1997-99) appointed again a junior general, Pervez Musharraf, overlooking many senior generals. But it is an ironic aspect of both the mentioned cases that General Zia and General Musharraf removed PM Bhutto and PM Sharif, respectively, and imposed martial law.
The outgoing Army Chief General Raheel Sharif was also appointed by PM Sharif to the position on November 26, 2016, bypassing the senior most general at the time Lt. Gen. Haroon Aslam. However, fortunately, there was no martial law during the stint of Gen. Sharif. This does not mean that the civil-military relations have been exemplary during the stint of Gen. Sharif as army chief. Rather, relations between PM Sharif and the COAS reportedly were not in accord. There were many reasons for this state of affairs.
Relations with arch-rival India had been the foremost reason for the difference of opinion between the government of PM Sharif and the General Sharif-led military. PM Sharif during his first interview to a foreign news organization, after getting elected prime minister for the third time in May 2013, had made a startling revelation that he had gained the mandate for having good ties with Delhi. PM Sharif was partially correct in his assumption, because his party got most of the National Assembly seats from the Punjab, and particularly from the business and trading classes and communities there, who wanted Pakistan to have good relations with India so that their businesses and trade could thrive. PM Sharif with his own business empire and economic stakes in India seemed to be the right choice to get the vote from these communities. However, for the Pakistan military, which is trained fundamentally to avert any threat from arch-rival India and its personnel are constantly reminded of their role and the threat which India poses to Pakistan’s existence, this is not at all acceptable. Thus, the military has its own urgent reasons to differ with PM Sharif over the question of relations with India particularly when India is ruled by a chauvinist Hindu zealot, Narendra Modi as prime minister.
The second reason for the dichotomous relationship between the PML-N government and the military leadership has been the differences over approach and strategy regarding the war against terrorism in the country. It was former COAS Gen. Sharif who ordered launching the massive Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014, to opt for a decisive onslaught against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and their local and foreign-affiliated militant terrorist groups based then in North Waziristan. After the loathsome terrorist attack by the TTP on the Army Public School, Peshawar on December 16, 2016, in which more than 150 people, mostly schoolchildren of civilians were butchered by terrorists, there has been a constant deterioration of relations between the civil and military pillars of government. Because the comprehensive 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) which was formulated by the parliament and the entire political leadership with consensus, could not be satisfactorily implemented. The NAP called for the role of all state and societal institutions to eliminate the scourge of religious extremism and terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam in the country. While the military was able to play its role by driving militants and terrorists from their largest redoubt, North Waziristan, by physically securing the entire district, the civilian government would not fulfill its part of the accord. This can be gauged from the fact that even the National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA) was not meaningfully made functional. The state of relations between the PM Sharif government and the COAS Sharif-led military was illustrated by the August 13, 2016, public statement of COAS Gen. Sharif. While presiding over a high-level special security meeting at the GHQ he said: “The National Action Plan is central to achievements of our objectives and its lack of progress is affecting the consolidation phase of Operation Zarb-i-Azb.” This was tantamount to raising serious question marks over the role of the PM Sharif government in the context of the war against terror.
The real bone of contention between the PM Sharif cabinet and the military leadership regarding the war on terror has been the complaints of the latter to give it a free hand to launch anti-extremist and anti-terrorist operations in the Sindh and Punjab provinces. Although the ruling party of Sindh, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), called the army-officered paramilitary force, the Rangers, in Karachi to launch operations against the terrorists and militants, which made the largest city of Pakistan a hub of their activities, but there has been wrestling over the scope of powers to the Rangers between the provincial government and military leadership. In this situation save interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, even PM Sharif could not play any meaningful mediatory role. Most analysts have been of the view that PM Sharif has had a tacit understanding with the PPP, which is also one of the two main opposition parties at the centre, to help each other in keeping the military at bay from the power corridors. Both the parties share the rationale that the military historically took advantage of the divisions in the political forces to capture power. However, on their part, both the federal and Punjab governments of the PML-N and Sindh government of the PPP have been allegedly indulging in large-scale financial corruption and abuse of power and authority giving space to the militants and terrorists particularly their financiers. In this situation the military, also with its institutional culture of suspecting civilian leadership of compromising on key national interests, is justifiably annoyed at the way corruption militates against the extirpation of terrorism and extremism in the country.
Another very important difference of thinking between PM Sharif and Gen. (Retd) Sharif was the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The project which would bring around a $46 billion dollar Chinese investment to Pakistan mostly in infrastructure development, is being described, rightly so, as the project on which hinges Pakistani economic future. Both the civilian government and military leadership are well aware of this. However, both the pillars of the state look at the project from their respective standpoints. The civilian government of the PML-N wants to take not only the credit for the CPEC, but also use the funds for the development of the Punjab, wherefrom it won most of the national assembly seats. On the other hand, the military high-command considers that the civilian government does not have the capacity to befittingly implement the project, not least because of the latter’s propensity for corruption.
All the above-mentioned issues, including the nature of Pakistan-India relations, corruption, approach and strategy regarding the war on terror and the CPEC are critically important, as a context for the new army chief. Personalities do matter in all governments and its institutions, but historically the military in Pakistan has largely been acting institutionally rather than individually.
We wish the new army chief well. We can only hope that General Qamar Javed Bajwa will proceed forward with a strong and sustained policy in the nation’s best interest. He must never compromise on the latter, notwithstanding the devious and destructive manoeuvrings of the government and the politicians, who only seek to pursue their vested interests.