Change of Guard in Pakistan’s Army

Posted on 11/30/13
By Arif Nizmai | via Pakistan Today
General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani hands over the command of Pakistan Army to General Raheel Sharif at a ceremoney in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on November 29. (Photo from video)
General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani hands over the command of Pakistan Army to General Raheel Sharif at a ceremoney in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on November 29. (Photo from video)


After a long hiatus the PML-N government (of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) is suddenly in a decision-making mode. On Wednesday (November 27) Lt. General Raheel Sharif was named the new army chief and his senior Lt General Rashad Mehmood as the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC). What by tradition should have been decided a couple of weeks ago was finally done just a day before General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s retirement.

The same day Khawaja Asif (a key Sharif aide) was allotted the additional portfolio of defense. The appointment was probably made as a matter of contingency so that Nawaz Sharif as defense minister did not have to appear in the missing persons case in the apex court the very next day. (Sveral hundred, and by some counts thousands of Pakistanis have gone missing over the past decade, many believed to be in the custody of the country’s powerful intelligence agencies without trial).

Although a mere formality, the same day Tassaduq Hussain Jilani was named the next chief justice of Pakistan. Pervaiz Rashid, the information minister, was given the additional charge of ministry of law and parliamentary affairs.

Appointment of the COAS (Chief of the Army Staff, the formal designation of Pakistan’s army chief) is a routine affair in most democratic countries. It happens without a whimper with few people even noticing it. But in Pakistan where sacrosanct democratic principle of civilian control over the armed forces is yet to be established, it is a subject of intense debate and speculation.

Television and print media pundits for weeks had been guessing who would be the next man on the horseback. Understandably, some news channels even held special transmissions on the day of the appointment.

Kayani last year was declared as the 28th most powerful persons in the world by Forbes magazine. According to Forbes, “Pakistan’s de facto leader controls nuclear weapons and one of the world’s largest standing armies.” President Zardari, his supreme commander under the constitution, figured nowhere on the list. Such is the power of Pakistan’s military chief!

Kayani ruled the roost for six action packed years. His biggest legacy is supporting and tolerating an elected civilian government despite strong pulls to the contrary. It was under his tutelage that a smooth transition from one elected government to another took place, a first in Pakistan.

The year 2011 was especially a bad year for civil-military relations. The arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis from Lahore, the killing of Osama bin Laden at his lair in Abbotabad later in May, and the Salala incident in November in which the US led NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers strained relations not only with Washington but with the PPP (Pakistan People’s Party of former president Asif Ali Zardari) led ruling coalition as well.

The “Memogate” controversy last year revolving around Pakistan ‘s ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani delivering a confidential memo on behalf of president Zardari for seeking the help of Obama administration to avert a military takeover in the wake of Osama bin Laden raid proved to be the last straw.

Haqqani facing charges of treason never returned to Pakistan despite Supreme Court orders after he chose to resign and go back to the United States. The then ISI chief Gen Shuja Pasha, a protégé of Kayani, was the moving force in trying to establish the case against Haqqani. No doubt the ultimate target was none other than Zardari himself.

Undoubtedly credit goes to Zardari and his cohorts as well for not precipitating a situation where military takeover could have become inevitable. Nevertheless Kayani unlike his predecessors curbed Bonapartist tendencies in the army by taking a strategic decision not to undermine an elected government.

A portrait of General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan's new army chief.
A portrait of General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s new army chief.

Raheel Sharif’s appointment as COAS by Prime Minister Sharif although not without controversy has generally been welcomed. Some quarters are of the view that by not appointing the senior-most person, Lt Gen Haroon Aslam as the new chief is symptomatic of the fact that no lessons have been learnt from past history.

Cherry picking an army chief has always led to disastrous results. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as prime minister chose Ziaul Haq, a relatively junior general, as his COAS who subsequently had no qualms in sending his mentor to the gallows.

Similarly Nawaz Sharif who picked Gen Musharraf as his army chief was unceremoniously ousted and sent into exile. Musharraf considered his ISI chief Gen Kayani as his protégé. He got a rude shock when the freshly minted COAS refused to do his bidding.

Heading such an overwhelmingly powerful entity every military chief is loyal to his own institution. It is up to the hapless civilian leadership how to put up with him.

Unlike the appointment of the Chief Justice of Pakistan where the senior most judges has a legitimate expectancy to be promoted to the top slot, it is the prime minister’s prerogative to pick whom he considers the best amongst the senior most generals.

Nawaz Sharif was perfectly within his right to pick the two generals as COAS and CJCSC from amongst the three most senior. Nonetheless like Lt Gen Haroon, it has become almost a tradition that the senior most general never makes it to the top slot.

In the case of Lt General Haroon there is a perception that because by virtue of serving as Director Military Operations and commanding the Special Services Group, he was directly involved in the coup to oust Nawaz in 1999. But even Gen Raheel Sharif, although not involved in his shenanigans, is considered a former protégé of Musharraf.

Perhaps a rather subjective reason for not appointing the senior most general could possibly be that if appointed he would owe his elevation to his seniority rather than largesse of the appointing authority.

Gen Raheel has his job description cut out for him. To ensure smooth working relations with the civilian leadership is stating but the obvious. Not having served in the ISI or under a military ruler he is relatively untainted. His real test in the terrorism wracked country however will be to chalk out a viable counter terrorism policy.

His predecessor Gen Kayani had asserted that terrorism was an existential threat for Pakistan. Nevertheless the military despite being a primary target of the (Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan) TTP’s wrath was unable or unwilling to review its strategy or its tactics. For all practical purposes India-centric doctrines have dominated its mindset.

To claim that India is no longer a threat to Pakistan will be an over simplification. But in the wake of impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan next year whether the military is willing to do some proactive out of the box introspection will soon become clear. Similarly the confusion bordering on inertia about talking to the TTP needs to be cleared.

How can talks with those who want to destroy Pakistan be a viable option? But will the military be finally ready to take on the terrorists holed up in our badlands is a question that still begs an answer.

Kayani had often lamented that the civilian government was unable to lead in such matters. It will be interesting to watch how the chips fall under a new civilian and military dispensation.

Arif Nizmai is Editor, Pakistan Today. 

Also see an Indian perspective on Pakistan’s new army chief:

Troubled history hangs over Pakistan’s new Army chief

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