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The Media Line: Amid Economic, Political Crises, Pakistan Must Choose Its Next Army Chief

Amid Economic, Political Crises, Pakistan Must Choose Its Next Army Chief

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

By Arshad Mehmood/The Media Line

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

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 beingremoved from power.

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

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, dueto Khan’s endless criticism of the military establishment. Khawaja Asif, Pakistans defenseminister, said in a statement that the next army chief would be appointed by next week and theofficial process would start on Monday. He slammed Khan for making the constitutional processcontroversial for personal reasons.

Since his ouster in April 2022, Khan has been holding public rallies and meetings across thecountry 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 criticalrhetoric 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 countrys topintelligence agency held a press conference in which he strongly rejected Khans allegations.

Chief among his other responsibilities, the Pakistan Army’s top commander is responsible for thecountry’s nuclear arsenal. While Pakistan is considered the world’s seventh nuclear power, thecountry suffers from a daunting combination of political and economic crises, including theinfiltration 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 ina failed assassination attempt. Despite his wounds, the long march continued under theleadership 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 askedthe workers to reach neighboring Rawalpindi on November 26, where he would participate in themarch. Rawalpindi is a garrison city, home to the General Staff Headquarters of the PakistanArmy, and is adjacent to the federal capital Islamabad.

Opposition leaders accused Khan of planning a protest in a garrison city at this crucial time, justto install an army chief of his choice. But Khan told reporters on Sunday in Lahore: I have nomore concern about the appointment of the next army chief. I have no problem with whomeverthey want to appoint. 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 MediaLine: “The importance of what just transpired and the curious timing just before the plannedappointment of the country’s new army chief of staff compellingly suggest that somethingserious is happening behind the scenes within its powerful establishment at this pivotal momentof 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 torestore 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 responsibleelements within the establishment are indeed trying to pragmatically de-escalate their country’scrisis 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 incomingnew army leadership in hopes of pushing them to convince the federal government to announcean early election day. At the same time, Khan will at least initially try to mend his ties with thenew army leadership.

“Similarly, the new army leadership will also be under pressure from segments of the public, aswell 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 theUS Naval War College, and a seasoned analyst, told The Media Line: “Regardless of whobecomes 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 theship in my way. This is equally true for all command appointments in the armed forces. It is notat 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 geostrategicsituation of the region, he will focus all attention on increasing the professional capabilities ofthe army. He will have an uphill task for the restoration of its image and rebuilding theconfidence 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 tomanage its ongoing crises after the appointment of the new army chief.

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