• PML-N leaders keeping cards close to their chest, most cabinet members ‘still in the dark’
• Nawaz said to favour ‘senior-most’ candidate; aware of need for balance following ‘controversies of Bajwa years’

KARACHI: Farewell visits in one camp, ultimate secrecy in the other — the question of who will be the next army chief is on everyone’s lips, but answers are scarce.

Gen Bajwa’s farewell visits and garrison tours may have put speculations about yet another extension to rest. But as always, the impending farewell marks a new beginning, and makes way for even more machinations and calculations.

Deliberations in London over the past few days between Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif are key to the appointment of the next chief, but senior N-leaguers back home either don’t know what’s being discussed, or won’t say.

The prime minister was scheduled to return to Pakistan after lengthy discussions with his elder brother on Friday, but made a last-minute change in his travel schedule and is now expected back in Pakistan sometime next week.

Read: Consensus in London — ‘Our way or the highway’

Although the official reason given for the change in the prime minister’s travel plans was that he had developed a fever and chose not to travel because he was unwell, the change in schedule was being interpreted by many as having to do with further discussions on the new chief.

“This [the appointment of the next chief] is one issue that has not been discussed with anyone,” one cabinet member told Dawn, rattling off a list of names of senior party members who, like them, are also in the dark.

The paranoia and anxiety are unmistakable. “No one is talking about it, because even the walls have ears. Things leak and get blown out of proportion. The entire cabinet is out of the loop about what’s being discussed in London. It’s a sensible way to go about it, as otherwise things can backfire and be misconstrued.”

A day earlier, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif rejected news reports that a decision on the new chief has been taken in London, and said that while the discussions did take place, no final decision has been made.

Talking to Dawn on Saturday, the defence minister said, “I have experience of handling this process in 2013 and 2016. In both cases, the process started in earnest after Nov 18. Similarly, the nation will ultimately come to know the final decision of the government around Nov 25.”

Party members are tight-lipped for many reasons. Some are genuinely in the dark about what their leaders are discussing in London, while the handful who have any knowledge about these secret conversations say it would be imprudent to share details.

One person Dawn spoke to felt that we should be “respectful of the outgoing chief”, as discussions about a new appointment “don’t look nice as the current chief is doing his farewells”.

Sharifs’ dilemma

According to the Constitution, the appointment of the services chiefs is made by the president on the recommendation of the prime minister. The prime minister asks the army via the defence ministry to submit the names of five eligible candidates, and selects one from them. The prime minister may discuss his pick with the current chief, as per tradition.

Though the process appears straightforward, it allows room for preferences to be presented — by both the army and government camps. These formed the crux of the discussion which took place in London between Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother, Shehbaz, on Friday.

“Mian sahib feels it should be the senior-most man, but the other side has a different point of view,” one insider told Dawn on condition of anonymity.

It is worth noting that Lt-Gen Asim Munir is technically the senior-most of the top generals who are in the running for the coveted slot. However, he is set to retire a few days before the incumbent hangs up his uniform.

Shehbaz Sharif could theoretically find a way out if he decides on Gen Munir as the next COAS, since the PM has the authority to elevate a Lt-Gen to the rank of a four-star general before his retirement, a move that may add another three years to his career.

Given the controversies that have marked Gen Bajwa’s consecutive terms, it is learned that Nawaz is “aware that he needs to strike a balance”.

“The younger Sharif will do as ordered – by who, I don’t know,” said the source, with a chuckle.

The source said that while Nawaz knows the brinkmanship needed, “the question is whether the prime minister will be able to withstand the pressure when the summary comes to him”.

“Some sanity will have to prevail or there is a chance of things going south with diverging viewpoints. Both sides have cards to play, but Nawaz is clear that a decision will be taken when the summary comes.”

There are several factors being considered by the Sharifs. One, that serious repercussions stem from an appointment of this gravity; second, that there is a huge trust deficit between them and the army.

“How does one bridge that, that is also being considered,” the source added.

Third, is that a decision should be made that is acceptable to the army, instead of based on a calculation or personal choice.

“We are always blamed that we made a personal choice in our favour – Mian sb is aware that this is the perception,” the insider said.

Though they will not speak openly or say more, all senior party members are aware that this is the “ultimate appointment” and that there is too much at stake for there to be any missteps.

Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2022

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