KARACHI: As the end of November creeps steadily closer, it appears there is a deadlock over the question of the all-important appointment of the new army chief.

Entrenched preferences on either side mean that the government must go back to the drawing board and adjust its view, especially if it cannot reconcile with the army on the institution’s choice.

According to informed sources, though all the five or six eligible senior officers of the armed for­ces are professional and have the ability to assume this responsibility, there is an unprecedented challenge for the next chief: damage control.

There is no doubt that, given the events of the last few years, and especially recent months, the institution has suffered reputationally. While the army’s involvement in political affairs is no secret, events such as the presser chaired by the current DG ISI and confirmation that the chief met with Imran Khan in a late-evening meeting have seriously complicated matters.

It seems all candidates for COAS position are equally qualified, but it’s the misplaced perception about a couple of them that is hindering the selection process

Gen Bajwa’s own insistence that the army will be politically neutral, too, has upped the ante.

Against this backdrop, and in a country where members of the public are increasingly questioning the military’s involvement in political matters, both sides are keen to make the right decision. Both sides want less controversy, and a chief who will “extricate himself” from the political and economic quagmire.

Sources say that though the eligible officers are all equally qualified, the fact that some are perceived as being in a certain camp has greatly complicated the matters.

Lt Gen Asim Munir, for instance, is perceived to be Nawaz’s favourite, though one senior N-League member insists “he may have no love for the Sharifs”.

Read: Who will be the next army chief?

The game now, unfortunately, is more about perception than reality, and both sides are already too deep in the perception rabbit hole.

“There is an impression that one candidate is ‘his man’ or ‘their man’, and this has created an unnecessary controversy,” the source said.

The institution is perceived to be leaning towards Lt Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza, Commander 10 Corps, and though said to be an excellent candidate with impressive credentials, he is perceived as being sympathetic to Mr Khan. The army, however, does not want anyone who is politically aligned.

“Gen Sahir has served in all the dream positions an army officer can have, and may be an excellent choice, but the perception, again, is making it all very murky.”

As far as labels go, Lt Gen Nauman Mehmood is believed to be “too rigid”, and Lt Gen Mohammad Amir perceived as “partial to the PPP” — a perception that, sources said, may rule them out.

Gen Faiz Hamid, Commander Bahawalpur Corps, too, is no stranger to controversy, having been publicly called out by the PDM and firmly believed to be Mr Khan’s favourite — a label Mr Khan denied to Dawn a few weeks ago, but not without saying they had a good working relationship.

If this situation persists, and the two sides cannot reconcile on one man, there needs to be a third option before Nov 29.

Enter Gen Azhar Abbas

“Gen Azhar is now emerging as the third option. Apparently talks very little, nobody on our side really knows him, but he is considered to be very professional and bright,” the sources said.

With no labels attached to him (yet), there is a growing sense that Gen Azhar, Chief of General Staff (CGS), will be picked simply because others will be eliminated.

“All of them can operationally run the army,” the sources said. “The bigger job is getting the institution out of this quagmire.”

Ironically, even as Mr Khan is pulling no punches when it comes to dragging the army publicly, PML-N is still feeling immense pressure due to this decision.

“The truth is that reality has ceased to matter. Perception is a big thing,” the sources added.

On merit, all candidates are more than competent to assume the responsibility of commanding the army. Perceptions, however, have made this appointment anything but straightforward.

“Unless the two sides reconcile, things will get murkier and the stalemate will persist.”

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2022

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