• Former defence secretary says proposed law seems tailored to army chief
• Govt already able to ‘retain’ retiring officers of Lt-Gen rank and below, as evident from Shuja Pasha’s extension

ISLAMABAD: Even though Defence Minister Khawaja Asif on Wednesday attempted to downplay the debate on a leaked proposal to amend the army act, the revelation has laid bare the ongoing behind-the-scenes power struggle, ahead of the impending appo­intment of a new army chief.

The wide-ranging amendments proposed in the Pakis­tan Army Act (PAA) 1952 pertain to an array of subjects rel­a­ted to the army’s functioning, structure, command, and terms and conditions of service.

However, amendments to Sec­tion 176 are currently the centre of attention, especially the insertion of the words “ret­e­ntion” and “resignation” in sub-section 2(a) of the same clause.

A casual reading of this specific amendment in the current scenario, wherein one of the contenders for the coveted post is scheduled to retire a couple of days before the chief’s position falls vacant, would suggest that a provision is probably being created to pull up the transition in a manner where the complexity involved in making an appointment is removed.

But that may not necessarily be the case.

The amendment was originally proposed by General Headquarters, as per the Defence Ministry’s Summary for the Cabinet Committee for the disposal of Legislation Cases (CCLC) and, on the face of it, seems to be meant to achieve the goal of getting Gen Bajwa to continue.

According to a retired defence secretary, the government or any of the services can technically retain any of retiring officers of the rank of lieutenant general and below for as long as they are required, without needing any new legislation.

The former secretary, who did not want to be named, said the plan to ‘retain’ seemed to be meant for none other than the incumbent army chief.

It is clear that the positions taken by the ruling allies and the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf have made the choice of the new commander quite tricky: if one candidate is picked, there is a chance that one of the political parties may try to discredit that appointment in public.

This is something the military can ill-afford at this juncture, when some of its senior officers are facing relentless criticism in the political domain.

This is the context in which the proposal to get Gen Bajwa to continue in office until after a new government is installed, seems to have emerged. The idea is that the new government then picks who would be the next army chief.

Until a few weeks ago, PTI chief Imran Khan was a leading proponent of this idea, but even he seems to have readjusted his views on the appointment and no longer seems keen to force his opinion on the appointment process.

Also read: Gen Bajwa to stay on as COAS for 6 more months: Supreme Court

On Wednesday, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif contended in a tweet that the proposed amendments package was required as per the Supreme Court verdict of 2019, which had called for legislating on the tenures of the services chiefs.

Timeline

Now comes the question of how serious the government is about the legislation proposed by GHQ. The summary shows that the proposal was sent by the defence ministry to the cabinet committee, which is the first port of call for any legislative proposal, on Nov 1. Since then, more than a fortnight has passed without a meeting of the CCLC.

When contacted by Dawn on Wednesday, three key federal ministers expressed complete ignorance about the proposed legislation, indicating that it had yet to be circulated among the members of the executive body.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s sudden detour to London on his way back from Sharm el-Sheikh on Nov 8 and his extended stay there also explains the government’s reluctance to do the needful. Reports from London had, at that time, indicated that PML-N leader Mian Nawaz Sharif was averse to Gen Bajwa staying in the job.

A federal minister, on the condition of anonymity, also said that the amendments in the army act may not happen before the change of command.

The defence minister also seemed non-committal about the scope of the amendments and the timeline for legislation, saying that no major changes in the army act were being considered and whatever amendments were to be carried out, would be done in “due course”.

Gen Bajwa, who continued his farewell tour as he visited the Malir Garrison in Karachi on Wednesday, also seems to have read this. But the struggle between the government and the military on the next chief is far from over.

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2022

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