Amid economic, political crises, Pakistan must choose next army chief

Factions strive over who will command the world’s seventh nuclear power.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meets with Pakistani Chief of Army Staff in Washington DC on October 4, 2022. (photo credit: US SECRETARY OF DEFENSE/CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA)
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meets with Pakistani Chief of Army Staff in Washington DC on October 4, 2022.
(photo credit: US SECRETARY OF DEFENSE/CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA)

[Islamabad] The imminent retirement of Pakistan Army Chief of Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa has placed the people of this South Asian country in a quandary over the appointment of his successor amid the nation’s worst economic and political crises in memory.

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Bajwa is scheduled to retire on November 29, 2022, at the end of his second three-year term as army chief. A graduate of the Canadian Army Command and Staff College, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the US National Defense University, Bajwa had served in several operational and staff positions in the Pakistan Army.

Although the tenure of the army chief is three years, Bajwa, like many others, got an extension. He was appointed in November 2016 by then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but his term was extended in 2019 by Prime Minister Imran Khan for another three years.

In the interim, Nawaz Sharif was removed by the courts after he was convicted of corruption, while Khan was ousted through a no-confidence vote. Both leaders reacted differently after being removed from power.

Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, began by criticizing the top command of the army, but after the removal of Khan, they adopted a more cautious attitude and expressed admiration for the same command. On the other hand, Khan began a campaign of nonstop critiquing Bajwa, along with other senior officers.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, 10th Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army (credit: INTER SERVICES PR/CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA)General Qamar Javed Bajwa, 10th Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army (credit: INTER SERVICES PR/CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA)

Significance of army chief appointment

The decision to appoint the next army chief is expected in the coming days, amid mounting concern by the entire country. The powerful Pakistan Army, which has ruled the country for more than half of its 75 years of existence, dominates decision-making in security and foreign policy.

Unlike in the past, the appointment of the new army chief has become highly controversial, due to Khan’s endless criticism of the military establishment. Khawaja Asif, Pakistan’s defense minister, said in a statement that the next army chief would be appointed by next week and the official process would start on Monday. He slammed Khan for making the constitutional process controversial for personal reasons.

Since his ouster in April 2022, Khan has been holding public rallies and meetings across the country and has received massive public support, including from some retired army generals. The support of ex-military officers has boosted Khan's morale and he continues his critical rhetoric meddling in the politics of the military establishment.

For this reason, and for the first time in the history of Pakistan, the head of the country’s top intelligence agency held a press conference in which he strongly rejected Khan’s allegations.

Chief among his other responsibilities, the Pakistan Army’s top commander is responsible for the country's nuclear arsenal. While Pakistan is considered the world’s seventh nuclear power, the country suffers from a daunting combination of political and economic crises, including the infiltration of terrorists from Afghanistan and regular border skirmishes with neighboring India.

The announcement of the new army chief is expected in Rawalpindi on November 29, but Khan issued instructions to his supporters to reach Rawalpindi by November 26. On October 28, he began a long march to Islamabad from Punjab’s provincial capital, Lahore. Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party are calling for early general elections.

When the marchers reached Wazirabad a week later, on November 3, Khan was shot in the leg in a failed assassination attempt. Despite his wounds, the long march continued under the leadership of senior party leaders, while Khan continued to address supporters via video link.

When the long march reached the suburbs of Islamabad on Saturday, November 19, Khan asked the workers to reach neighboring Rawalpindi on November 26, where he would participate in the march. Rawalpindi is a garrison city, home to the General Staff Headquarters of the Pakistan Army, and is adjacent to the federal capital Islamabad.

“I have no more concern about the appointment of the next army chief.”

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan

Opposition leaders accused Khan of planning a protest in a garrison city at this crucial time, just to install an army chief of his choice. But Khan told reporters on Sunday in Lahore: “I have no more concern about the appointment of the next army chief. I have no problem with whomever they want to ap¬point. Now the government is trapped from both sides.”

Khan added: “I know that my wounds cannot heal soon; even so, I will lead the long march with the wounded leg.” He also hinted that “everyone will get a surprise on November 26. I am aware of their plans, but I am planning ahead.”

The Media Line spoke with several experts who are closely monitoring the situation in Pakistan. Brig. Gen. (ret.) Haris Nawaz, a Karachi-based leading defense and political analyst, called it “very unfortunate to drag the military establishment into politics. The establishment seems willing to resist, because Khan is constantly calling them traitors, and this is the main reason that the military is not supporting him, and ultimately, he is irritated.

“In my view,” he continued, “Khan should fight political battles with political means, without dragging the army into it. The appointment of the next army chief is a normal process, which occurs after every three years. Four or five names of the senior-most serving lieutenant generals are sent to the Defense Ministry with their dossiers and the prime minister may select any one of them. Unfortunately, this time a simple process is intentionally made controversial by ruling coalition leaders and Imran Khan.”

Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American defense and political analyst, told The Media Line: “The importance of what just transpired and the curious timing just before the planned appointment of the country’s new army chief of staff … compellingly suggest that something serious is happening behind the scenes within its powerful establishment at this pivotal moment of Pakistan’s converging crises.”

Korybko added that “following his superficially democratic ouster, Khan inspired millions of his compatriots to peacefully rally for free and fair elections … as early as possible in order to restore the political certainty required for saving the economy from its ongoing meltdown. The regime brutally cracked down on the opposition and even attempted to assassinate the former premier.”

On the other hand, Korybko told The Media Line: “It certainly appears that some responsible elements within the establishment are indeed trying to pragmatically de-escalate their country’s crisis by exploring the possibility of an early election.”

Faran Jeffery, COO of the UK-based Midstone Centre for International Affairs, is an expert on counterterrorism, geopolitics, and foreign policy. He told The Media Line: “I think the priority of the government, as well as a quarter of the establishment, is to appoint the new army chief on the basis of seniority.”

On the other hand, he added, “Imran Khan wants to continue to exert pressure on the incoming new army leadership in hopes of pushing them to convince the federal government to announce an early election day. At the same time, Khan will at least initially try to mend his ties with the new army leadership.

“Similarly, the new army leadership will also be under pressure from segments of the public, as well as its rank and file, to take two steps back and establish itself as apolitical.”

Adeeb Ul Zaman Safvi, a Karachi-based retired captain of the Pakistan Navy, a graduate of the US Naval War College, and a seasoned analyst, told The Media Line: “Regardless of who becomes the new army chief, he will not carry the baggage of his predecessor.

“There is a famous quote in the navy, ‘my ship my command,’ which means that I will run the ship in my way. This is equally true for all command appointments in the armed forces. It is not at all necessary that the new army chief should continue the policies of his predecessor.

“The new army chief will be the head of a nuclear army, and considering the geostrategic situation of the region, he will focus all attention on increasing the professional capabilities of the army. He will have an uphill task for the restoration of its image and rebuilding the confidence of the nation in the army as a state institution.”

Safvi added: “The newly appointed COAS will have to take significant actions to convey that "political engineering" is gone and civilian supremacy is foremost under his command.”

For the foreseeable future, the question will remain unanswered whether Pakistan will be able to manage its ongoing crises after the appointment of the new army chief.