The reported tensions between the civil and military leadership and a movement launched by opposition leader Imran Khan to oust Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could play a role in the choice of the next Pakistani Army chief, with the race believed to have narrowed down to four generals.
The current chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, announced in January that he didn’t “believe in extension” and would retire on the due date in November. With just four weeks to go for his retirement, reports have suggested that Gen Sharif could be given a one-year extension or elevated to the rank of field marshal because of his role in the war on terror and a recent spike in tensions with India.
Prime Minister Sharif, however, is believed to be opposed to any extension. Analysts said the movement started by Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan against the premier could put pressure on the civilian leadership to choose the next army chief based on recommendations provided by the military high command.
The four generals whose names are doing the rounds for the most powerful position in Pakistan are Lt Gen Javed Iqbal Ramday, commander of Bahawalpur-based XXXI Corps, Lt Gen Zubair Hayat, Chief of General Staff, Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmad, commander of the Multan-based II Corps, and Lt Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, who heads the army’s training and evaluation wing.
Of them, the favourite is Ramday, who led an operation in 2009 to drive the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan out of the Swat Valley after the militants set up a parallel administration in the area. He comes from a political family of Punjab and is believed to be the ruling PML-N party’s preferred choice, say analysts.
Another favourite is Hayat, from an army family of Lahore, who oversees intelligence and operational affairs at the army’s General Headquarters. He is the senior-most of the generals and earlier served as director general of the Strategic Plans Division, which is responsible for managing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Media reports have suggested that retired and serving officers who have worked with Hayat see him as a compromise between the military and civilian government.
Ahmad has extensive experience with military operations, especially against the Taliban insurgency, and has also served as the Director General of Military Operations, a position that has always been seen as a plus point for the army chief’s job. He also was involved in preparations for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a drive against militants in the tribal areas that burnished Gen Sharif’s credentials
Bajwa, who earlier commanded the X Corps that is responsible for the area along the Line of Control, is considered the dark horse in the race.
Analysts have also said that Prime Minister Sharif, who holds a record of sorts for appointing four army chiefs so far, prefers to have a non-Punjabi in the post as it gives him an edge.
This was the philosophy that led to Sharif nominating Pervez Musharraf as the army chief in the 1998 but with disastrous results.
“What we are seeing, however, is that Nawaz Sharif’s thinking has not changed. He wants to have someone who does not dictate to him, which Raheel Sharif has been doing for some time,” said analyst Aga Masood.
Other analysts noted that Imran Khan was planning to re-ignite protests against the government by mid-October, weeks before a decision is made on the army chief. “This is no coincidence. The timing is important,” said analyst Aisha Siddiqa, who added that the number of supporters at a recent rally organised by Khan suddenly rose to thousands. Last month, Khan’s party could muster only a few hundred for a similar rally.
In India, observers said the appointment of a new Pakistan Army chief was always an important development and the process is closely followed by decision-makers.
TCA Raghavan, who served as the Indian envoy in Islamabad, said, “This kind of speculation about who is going to be the next chief is routine. Sometimes, there are surprise choices. Gen Raheel Sharif was a surprise choice.
“Prime Minister Sharif has an important say in it, to the extent that he selects the man for the post from the list given to him. Personality matters. Had there been no Pervez Musharraf, there wouldn’t have been a Kargil. But the new chief is not going to alter Pakistan’s stated policy on Kashmir, though there could be a difference in emphasis.”
MK Bhadrakumar, a former career diplomat who headed the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran division in the foreign ministry, said much had changed in the equation between Pakistan’s prime minister and army leadership. “To my mind, Prime Minister Sharif’s sole discretion will prevail (in the appointment of the army chief).
“Their army has an important say in crucial security and foreign policy issues, but there is consensus about the centrality of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The persona of the next army chief cannot be expected to impact Pakistani policies to the extent as it used to be. The compass is set. Prime Minister Sharif will naturally prefer someone he feels comfortable with.”
(With inputs from Jayanth Jacob in New Delhi)