October does not disappoint. The change of command at the ISI notified on Wednesday is the single most consequential development in recent months, according to Red Zone insiders. Given the nature of the country’s political situation, this change at the top of the agency is expected to spawn many major and minor ripples in critical areas.
Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum now replaces Lt Gen Faiz Hameed as the director general of the ISI, while the former DG has been appointed as commander of the 11 Corps in Peshawar. Gen Faiz has had a lengthy stint at the ISI and leaves a deep imprint in more ways than one, as was reflected in the blistering press conference by Maryam Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday.
The routine-ness of these postings and transfers is, like always, deceptively un-routine in its significance. After the retirement of three lieutenant generals this month, seven more three star officers will retire from service before Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa completes his tenure in November 2022.
If we look at the seniority list of lieutenant generals as of November 2022, the former DG ISI is one of the four who will be senior-most. The new DG ISI is one among the batch of four lieutenant generals below the four who will be senior-most in November next year.
Among these top four, three have already commanded corps. Lt Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza, is currently commander of the Rawalpindi 10 Corps. Lt Gen Azhar Abbas, the current Chief of General Staff at the GHQ, has previously commanded 10 Corps, while Lt Gen Nauman Mahmood was commander of the Peshawar 11 Corps before being posted as president of the National Defence University on Wednesday. With General Faiz appointed as the Peshawar corps’ commander, the top four three star officers who will be the senior most in November next year are now qualified to be in the run for the top slot.
As per convention, the GHQ sends four names to the prime minister for consideration as the next Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). These names are usually from the same Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) course that is the senior most at the time of the appointment. The prime minister then makes two choices: one lieutenant general from among the four is promoted to the four-star rank as Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) while the other is appointed as a four-star Chief of the Army Staff.
It was Pakistan’s worst-kept secret that Lt Gen Faiz was due for a posting out of the ISI as he had yet to command a corps since donning his third star. As one of the four generals who will be eligible to be considered for the post of next army chief, it was widely expected that he would be assigned the command of a corps. The only question was: which one?
In his capacity as DG ISI, Lt Gen Faiz played a key role in shaping and executing Pakistan’s Afghan policy. It was he along with special envoy Ambassador Mohammad Sadiq who were central figures in helping patch together the Doha talks between the United States and Taliban. The two were also instrumental in engaging with the Taliban both in Doha and in Afghanistan. Gen Faiz also played an important role in the short-lived quiet ‘backchannel’ talks between Pakistan and India that took place till late last year. However, he was also accused by PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz of taking on an oversized political role.
His successor at the ISI, Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmad Anjum will bring his own command priorities to the assignment. Given the significant impact of his predecessor on various areas of policy — including the domestic arena — it would be interesting, actionably speaking, to see how he steers the organisation into some areas and whether he would de-emphasise other domains.
These appointments come at a crucial time for the country’s politics. Elections are due latest by October 2023, and Red Zone insiders are already doing their calculations, which can of course all come undone given the unpredictability of events in this system. The new DG ISI has another two years of service left. He retires in September 2023 — all things remaining equal, that is — so if he serves this time in his present assignment, he would still be in office when the National Assembly ends its five-year term in August 2023 and a caretaker government is sworn in.
This is a risky calculation to make though. If there is a new army chief in November 2022, he would make many appointments afresh. This still leaves the next 13 months. Thirteen very crucial months.
PML-N insiders confide that these 13 months will be make-or-break for them. Most of them were waiting with bated breath for the October appointments. Maryam Nawaz’s fiery press conference on Wednesday was timed accordingly. It sent a message. A very direct message.
It could be a gamble. This gamble will play out in the next 13 months. Would it accrue dividends? And to whom? No one is taking bets.
What many in the PML-N are hoping — such hope being garnished with their political acumen — that the October appointments could, perhaps, provide them the space they need to get back fully into the game. Part of this relates to the larger strategic outlook that may take shape in the wake of adjusted priorities reflected in the new appointments, but part of it is fairly tactical. Opposition insiders believe that if the prime minister’s dependency on some key individuals might lessen because of recent changes, this in itself would constitute a significant alteration to the way that the PM is managing his political affairs. Advantage opposition, the opposition thinks.
The realm of speculation is an expansive one. The specificity of the new NAB ordinance as announced by the cabinet ministers on Wednesday, or of the Pandora Papers, or even of the looming political and legal battles in the remaining months of this year, all these could start knitting the realm of speculation into a realm of possibilities.
All bets are on. Except, all bets are off.
Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2021