Lt Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, seen as a dark horse in the race for the post of Pakistan Army chief and considered to have extensive experience of affairs in Kashmir, emerged on Saturday as the successor to Gen Raheel Sharif.
Bajwa, a career infantry officer from the Baloch Regiment, will take over when Gen Sharif retires on November 29. Besides Bajwa, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chose Lt Gen Zubair Hayat as the next chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee.
“On the advice of Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, President Mamnoon Hussain has approved the promotion of Lieutenant General Zubair Mehmood Hayat and Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa,” the prime minister’s office said.
Much of the speculation about the next army chief in recent weeks had centred around Hayat and Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed, and Bajwa – who once served alongside former Indian Army chief Gen Bikram Singh in a UN peacekeeping mission in Congo - wasn’t seen as a frontrunner.
Prime Minister Sharif finalised the names of the two generals on Saturday and an official notification was expected shortly.
Sources in Islamabad said the debate in recent weeks within the Pakistan Army’s hierarchy was whether the next chief should be a general who was well versed with counter-insurgency operations or someone who could strike a balance between the drive against militant groups and countering India following the spike in tensions on the Line of Control.
With some sections of the military leadership believing that Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the counter-insurgency drive initiated by Gen Sharif, was winding down, Bajwa was perceived as the right fit given his expertise in Kashmir and along the LoC, the sources told Hindustan Times.
Despite its recent focus on counter-insurgency operations, the Pakistan Army remains – as former army chief Ashfaq Kayani once put it – an “India-centric” force that exercises immense influence on foreign and security policies.
For the political establishment led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Bajwa was seen as a better candidate as he is believed to be one of the generals who counseled against any adventurism by the army during the 2014 dharna by opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri. That protest had considerably weakened the PML-N government.
At that time, Bajwa headed the Rawalpindi-based X Corps, the Pakistan Army’s largest formation that is responsible for operations along the LoC. The 111 infantry brigade, infamous for its role in several coups, is part of the X Corps.
Within military circles, Bajwa is also perceived as “less of a hawk” than some of his contemporaries and sources said he is believed to consider extremism is a major threat for Pakistan.
As Bajwa’s name did the rounds in recent days, there was a whisper campaign that suggested he was not fit for the post as his family reportedly had links with the Ahmedi minority, which has been declared “non-Muslim”. These reports were dismissed by the establishment and PML-N Senator Sajid Mir, who made the claim on social media, recanted.
“The selection has been entirely on merit and the choice has been made in the best way possible,” said defence analyst Lt Gen (retired) Talat Masood. He said the four contenders were running neck and neck as they were all equally competent and qualified. “They all brought different skills and experience with them. What we have seen is that the most competent person has been selected.”
Brig (retired) Mahmood Shah said the choice for Prime Minister Sharif must have been a very difficult one. “At the end of the day I think merit has been kept in mind,” he added.
Bajwa is currently serving in the General Headquarters as inspector general for training and evaluation, the same position held by Gen Sharif when he became chief in 2013. Besides serving as commander of X Corps, Bajwa also added to his expertise on Kashmir affairs by leading the Force Command Northern Areas as a major general.
Lt Gen Hayat is serving as chief of general staff (CGS) and was the senior-most of the four contenders for the army chief’s post. He also served as director general of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which oversees the country’s nuclear weapons.
His expertise in the SPD made him a good fit for the post of chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee, which exercises jurisdiction over the strategic nuclear forces.