Countdown to a new army chief begins

Updated 22 Nov 2016

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Chief of the Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif addresses a gathering of soldiers and Rangers during his farewell visit to the Lahore Garrison on Monday. — INP
Chief of the Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif addresses a gathering of soldiers and Rangers during his farewell visit to the Lahore Garrison on Monday. — INP

ISLAMABAD: The countdown to the appointment of the next army chief has begun. Even as Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Gen Raheel Sharif on Monday began his last week in office by embarking on a round of farewell visits to military formations, speculation around who would succeed him reached fever pitch.

With Gen Sharif due to step down on Nov 29, it now falls to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to pick a top commander of the armed forces for a record fourth time.

Additionally, PM Sharif would also be naming a new chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee — another top position falling vacant due to the impending retirement of Gen Rashad Mehmood.

A tweet from Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) chief Lt Gen Asim Bajwa announcing that the army chief had begun making ritual farewell calls finally laid to rest all speculation about his future, which had proliferated despite a commitment from the COAS, made at the beginning of this year, to retire on time.

Gen Sharif initiated his parting meetings from the Lahore Garrison, where he told a gathering of officers and men from the army and Rangers that he was leaving the country “more secure and stable”, with a “sense of greater hope and direction” and ready to thwart all challenges.

According to the prime minister’s aides, he has already made up his mind over who will succeed Gen Sharif, but has so far kept his cards close to his chest.

The military’s announcement of Gen Sharif’s farewell visits on Monday paved the way for the government to announce a successor. Though the prime minister is the only person who definitely knows who the next army chief will be, the word in political circles is that Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem, who is currently serving as Multan corps commander, will be named the army chief. In addition, Lt Gen Zubair Mehmood is likely to be appointed chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee.

Others in contention include Bahawalpur Corps Commander Lt Gen Javed Iqbal Ramday and Inspector General Training and Evaluation Lt Gen Qamar Bajwa.

All four generals are from the PMA’s 62nd long course, but have had different career trajectories.

PM Sharif’s choice will be important from the context that the new army chief would have to oversee the transition of the army from counterterrorism assignments to its conventional role of defending the borders.

The formal process for nomination starts with the General Headquarters sending a list of the senior-most generals to the prime minister via the defence ministry, but without making any formal recommendations.

The PM then holds informal consultations with the outgoing army chief before announcing his decision.

In a statement on Monday, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif was quoted as saying that the prime minister would soon hold a consultation with Gen Sharif.

Gen Sharif’s legacy

The general’s public line on terrorism endeared him to the terror-weary nation, which began to look up to him as a saviour, whether the issue was terrorism or corruption.

So much was his clout that in 2014, the parties protesting outside the Parliament House tried to get Gen Sharif to mediate between them and the government.

The army’s media management acquired a new dimension under Gen Sharif, particularly through the use of social media platforms, with the hashtag #ThankYouRaheelSharif dominating Facebook and Twitter.

At times, he was pictured on the publicity material of candidates in local bodies elections and, embarrassingly, he would occasionally also make it to posters put up by the banned groups.

Public approval, however, came with a price. The rhetoric that was used to build his public image set the bar a little too high. Fears about the resurgence of terrorism, the unresolved issues in Karachi and Balochistan and a failure to clear Punjab of terrorism nurseries are some of the issues that would not only continue to strain the general’s legacy, but would also be the principal challenges for his successor.

The chief’s anti-corruption purge, for the first time ever, targeted senior officers. At least four generals, including two serving officers, were removed from service after being found guilty. But the anti-corruption fervor seemingly lost steam after the Frontier Corps scam, which culminated in Inspector General Arms Lt Gen Obaidullah Khattak and Maj Gen Ejaz Shahid being sent home.

While there were hints that other corruption inquiries were also nearing completion, things eventually went quiet.

One high point of Gen Sharif’s tenure was the launching of Operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan. An equally important success lay in measures taken to prevent the much-dreaded militant backlash that had been preventing previous commanders from going into the restive agency.

But under his leadership, the military’s media wing seemed to forget about the six agencies cleared under Gen Kayani and touted the North Waziristan operation as a panacea.

These actions provided a respite and marked a visible decline in terrorist actions, though high-profile attacks like Army Public School, Charsadda University, Safoora Goth incidents kept reminding the people about the looming threat.

Counterterrorism remained a sore point in the civil-military relationship. Political and military leaders in background discussions kept accusing the other side of not being forthcoming.

On a couple of occasions, ISPR publicly conveyed the military’s disappointment over the government’s inadequacies in dealing with terrorism and enforcing the National Action Plan.

Internally, Karachi remains unsettled and Balochistan continues to be in the throes of terrorism. The recent attacks on a shrine in Hub and a police academy in Quetta serve as reminders about challenges that remain.

The much touted operation in Punjab also remained a pipe dream and there are still apprehensions that the relief from terrorism could be temporary.

During his tenure, the army was said to enjoy complete control over relations with neighbouring countries — India, Afghanistan, Iran and China — as well as the US and was also in charge of facilitating the Afghan peace process.

This approach was heavily criticised by the political leadership, especially the opposition, who repeatedly took issue with the PML-N’s deference to the military in this key realm.

The general, moreover, undertook an unprecedented number of overseas visits, but the state of affairs around his departure suggest that he was not very successful in steering ties with most of our neighbours (except China) and the US to steadier shores.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2016