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Generals waiting in the wings

September 07, 2007

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ISLAMABAD, Sept 6: Handling two former prime ministers — for diametrically opposite reasons — and worrying about a possible legal challenge to his re-election as the country’s president may well be occupying General Pervez Musharraf’s mind most of the time these days. But another equally, if not more, important decision that he has so far kept close to his chest, and which he is expected to announce within the next couple of weeks is of the appointment of two four-star generals who would replace the outgoing chairman of joint chiefs of staff committee (CJCSC) and vice-chief of army staff (VCOAS) in early October.

Certainly, more crucial of the two appointments is that of VCOAS because, unlike the incumbent Vice-Chief, General Ahsan Salim Hayat, the new appointee may, within a matter of a few months, replace Gen Musharraf as the army chief once he decides to doff his uniform. In fact, with the controversy about the presidential election acquiring a new dimension with the Supreme Court’s judicial intervention, the possibility of Gen Musharraf relinquishing his military position earlier, and directly appointing his successor can also not be ruled out.

So who will be the next VCOAS who, after taking over as the army chief, will soon acquire the status of the proverbial ‘king maker’ of Pakistani politics? Everyone in the military has remained tight-lipped on the issue, perhaps because their guess is as good as that of any astute civilian. At this stage the only person who knows about it, and whose future political career depends on it, is the president. And he is in no mood to drop any hint before the actual announcement.

So, it was hardly a surprise that when this question was put to the army spokesman, and Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Major General Waheed Arshad, he had no answer. All he knew, he said, was that the announcement should be made within the next few weeks as the CJCSC General Ehsan and VCOAS General Ahsan Salim Hayat were to retire on Oct 7.

However, Gen Waheed Arshad said since the president is also the COAS, the decision to make the two appointments would be entirely his.Those who are privy to the officers’ seniority list say there is only one person, whose profile doesn’t mention the date of retirement. He is Gen Musharraf, in whose retirement column it has been stated that ‘till the appointment of the next COAS’. All others have a specific retirement date, including the other two four-star generals.

In such a situation, it should hardly come as a surprise to anyone that while Gen Musharraf himself belongs to the 29th PMA course, because of his prolonged stay as the army chief, the successor he plans to choose will be either from the 45th or 46th course. The seniority list of the top 12 lieutenant generals makes an interesting reading, and provides some idea about the various possibilities that exists, and the kind of choice that Gen Musharraf has for selecting the CJCSC and VCOAS. Topping the list is Lt. Gen Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, who is Director-General of the all-prestigious Strategic Plan Division. But he is already on extension and is not likely to be considered for the post of VCOAS. However, some believe that because of his deep involvement with the military’s strategic nuclear assets, he may have an outside chance of becoming the chairman, JCSC. If a combination of seniority and competence remains the criteria, then current ISI chief, Lt. Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, may pair with him to be the new vice-chief.

But if Lt. Gen Kidwai is out, the two senior most three-star generals who qualify for the two coveted posts are Lt. Gen Kiani pairing with the Commander 10 Corps, Lt. Gen Tariq Majeed, with the former being elevated to the largely ceremonial post of CJCSC and the latter being made the VCOAS.

Opinion has remained divided on such a selection, and though most people believe this to be the most likely pairing, there has been some whispering campaign to create an impression that Lt. Gen Tariq Majeed was no more the favourite. However, none of those talking in such terms has ever been able to come up with a logical reason to support such an argument for a person who, like Lt. Gen Kiani, is regarded as a thorough professional, and someone who has been on the most prestigious appointments.

But some retired generals and many others who regard themselves as expert on such military matters -- and there is no dearth of such people -- seniority alone has never been the criterion for selection at this level. And even the army’s spokesman agrees to such a proposition.

They point to several examples from the last few decades when competence and loyalty had been as important factors as seniority. Gen Zia-ul-Haq was appointed the army chief by the then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on top of several senior generals. Twenty years later, Gen Musharraf was made the COAS by prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Even though he was not the senior most, the then PM, due to some misplaced concepts about the military’s composition, thought he might feel obliged and remain loyal. Both proved their benefactors wrong. But that’s another story. In between these two, a number of other generals who rose to serve as the army chief, and some after superseding a few others, retired on the completion of their tenure, and without directly intervening in civilian affairs.

Observers say it is not only as the president’s right, but also a necessity, to take into account competence and loyalty along with seniority while making the decision. Even if such factors are taken into account, it is said that the two senior-most, Kiani and Majeed, fit the bill, and remain the front-runners.

But this has not stopped many among the retired officers and active politicians to discuss and speculate about various senior generals, who can be described as aspirants for the top appointments. And one factor that has helped fuel such debate is that at least seven lieutenant generals are from the same batch -- 46th PMA -- and the difference in their seniority is largely because of the timing of their various appointments.

It is for this reason that people are still not ruling out the presence of a dark horse, who could be anyone from amongst Lt. Gen Mohammed Sabir, who is MS in GHQ, to the Quarter Master General Lt. Gen Afzal Muzzaffar, or even the Gujranwala Corps Commander, Lt. Gen Wasim Ashraf.

Selection of a person who is to command the troops is a crucial decision in almost every country, but certainly not as crucial as in Pakistan. Because of the country’s chequered political history, and repeated military interventions in civilian affairs, the army chief remains a key player in the decision-making process. So, it’s not without reason that President Musharraf is taking his own time to decide about the next VCOAS, who in all likelihood, would soon be the next army chief.

Seniority list

1. Lt. Gen Khalid Ahmed Kidwai — DG Strategic Plan Division (SPD)

2. Lt. Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiani — DG Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)

3. Lt. Gen Malik Arif Hayat — serving in GHQ (may not qualify as never commanded a corps)

4. Lt. Gen Tariq Majeed — Corps Commander, Rawalpindi

5. Lt. Gen Mohammed Safdar — Chief of Logistical Service (CLS), GHQ

6. Lt. Gen Ather Ali — DG at Joint Staff Headquarters

7. Lt. Gen Wasim Ahmad Ashraf — Corps Commander, Gujranwala

8. Lt. Gen Mohammed Sabir — Military Secretary, GHQ

9. Lt. Gen Imtiaz Hussain — Adjutant General, GHQ

10. Lt. Gen Muhammad Afzal Muzzaffar — Quarter Master General, GHQ

11. Lt. Gen Hamid Rab Nawaz — IG T&E, GHQ

12. Lt. Gen Muhammad Salahuddin Satti — Chief of General Staff, GHQ