Staying on the same page

  • An awkward regional situation or a comfort zone for the government


General Bajwa’s extension is not a surprise, though the duration might be, because there was the idea floated that the tenure of the COAS be returned to the original three-years-plus-one introduced by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto after the 1971 War. General Zia played fast-and-loose with this in the Army and the PAF, though he applied it to the Navy. When Muhammad Khan Junejo became PM, he used the Navy to establish that there would be only one three-year tenure granted to service chiefs. This rule was carefully followed until General Musharraf and then General Kayani.

From one point of view, the three-year extension in the tenure of the Chief of Army Staff, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, was not unexpected. Where else, after all, was one going to find an officer who had not only done tours of duty with his home unit on the Line of Control, but also served with a Northern Light Infantry unit, but commanded a brigade there, and served as Commander Force Command Northern Areas, and then done his Corps Command at Rawalpindi, which is responsible for the Line of Control? However, that deep knowledge of Kashmir, brought about by prolonged exposure to it, is not the only reason why General Bajwa received an extension, for many infantry officers have similar career profiles. Even for other branches, there has to be a ‘hard-area’ posting at some time in one’s career.

After the Musharraf era, there has been no military takeover, but there is now great emphasis on ensuring that the military and the government are ‘on the same page’.

Another problem that faces the COAS and the Army he heads is that of Afghanistan. As the USA enters the endgame, it needs Pakistan to facilitate the withdrawal it hankers for. The deadline is not far off. That withdrawal must come in time to facilitate Donald Trump’s re-election bid in 2020. General Bajwa accompanied Prime Minister Imran Khan to the USA recently, where he not only met US President Donald Trump, but also visited the Pentagon. As the USA assumes that Pakistan has considerable influence with the Taliban, and deals with it through the ISI, and the Army, the USA seems the Army as crucial to ensuring that the Taliban engage with them constructively. The relationship of the Taliban and the Army are at the point where the COAS has made more than one visit to Kabul to see the Afghan President.

The COAS also has to maintain relations with the civilian government. The COAS is the interface of the Army and the government. After the Musharraf era, there has been no military takeover, but there is now great emphasis on ensuring that the military and the government are ‘on the same page’. This has meant also that the military has a role in economic-policymaking, and General Bajwa is ex officio a member of the National Development Council.

This government is supposed to be on the same page as the Army, and it is worth noting that when General Bajwa’s extension expires, which means in November 2022, the country will be edging close to the next general election. It is almost as if Prime Minister Imran Khan has developed a rapport with the present COAS, and has opted for a quiet life for the rest of his tenure.

There has been an assumption that the Army as a whole does not like the idea of an extension for the COAS. Mathematically, that would only apply to those lieutenant-generals who had a chance of being promoted, but will not be. Otherwise, everything will go according to vacancy. The lieutenant-general who would have been promoted will now retire in due course, and the vacancy thus created will be filled by a promotion, and so on down the line. A substantial difference is only made when a substantial number of officers do not retire on time, because they will occupy those slots.

It is also the first time ever that the announcement about the COAS has not been accompanied by one about the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, The office of Chairman was converted first by Zia ul Haq and then by Pervez Musharraf into a place where a superseded officer could be kicked upstairs, being given the satisfaction of a four-star slot when passed over for the post of COAS. It should not be forgotten that, when a lieutenant-general is promoted, it is not just seniors who might be superseded, but also those juniors or batchmates who will retire before the next vacancy occurs. This might not be a supersession in the sense of having to salute someone who has been a junior for three decades, but still, it means that a career has closed.

It should be noted that these extensions have become something of a norm, with two of the last three COASs receiving a second term. Gen (retd) Raheel Sharif did not get a second term, having to make do with a post-retirement appointment as Commander-in-Chief Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, but Gen (retd) Ashfaq Pervez Kayani did.

It is also worth noting that the Army is becoming something of a hereditary preserve. General Bajwa’s father was a lieutenant-colonel who died while still in service, his predecessor General Raheel was the brother of the 1971 Nishan-i-Haider Major Shabbir Sharif and son of a major (and nephew of Major Aziz Bhatti, the 1965 Nishan-i-Haider), General Kayani’s father had been a subedar major, and before that Gen Pervez Musharraf’s father had retired from the Foreign Ministry as a joint secretary. Before that, Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s father had been in the Army, retiring as a risaldar-major. Gen Asif Nawaz was also the son of a retired major. Gen Ziaul Haq’s father had been a civilian employee in GHQ, while Yahya Khan’s father, though not in the military, belonged to a uniformed service, the police.

It is instructive that the Indian Army has now developed a tendency to COASs from military families. The first ‘Army brat’ to become COAS in India, Gen J.J. Singh in 2005, was the son of a colonel. Since, there has been one other colonel’s son, and a subedar-major’s son. The present COAS, Gen Bipin Rawat, is the son of a lieutenant-general.

It might be difficult to replace a commander in mid-battle, but to retain one before battle has been joined is an indicator of a lack of confidence in those officers in line for the job. So far, the government has been shrugging off charges about the persecution of the opposition with the declaration that NAB is independent. Now is the military going to say that the government is independent?