The Selection of the New Army Chief in Pakistan
Cathartic transitions in Pakistan
Editors Note: This article was written just before the appointment of Lt General Syed Asim Munir Ahmed Shah as the Pakistan Army Chief.
Just returned from a trip to Singapore and, especially, Cambodia which I had longed to visit and where I beheld the largest religious monuments of any kind in the world. The magnificence of Angkor Wat, built in early 12th Century by the Khmer emperor Suryavarman II in his capital of Yasodapura, immediately reminded me of AL Basham's book — The Wonder That Was India [note the past tense] I read as an undergrad at the University of California. This tracked the rise of the Chola and Srivijaya empires in littoral Southeast Asia, and the still earlier Indic influences in that part of the world.
There it was hundreds of acres of temple complexes of at once enormous size and delicacy, celebrating the pantheon of Hindu gods and their many avatars — Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma (the temple dedicated to the last named being restored with the help and technical assistance of the Archaelogical Survey of India) but now with Buddha figures installed in them. And unending temple walls filled with friezes and engravings depicting the Ramayana, with one of the panels showing, as our mischief-minded but well informed guide, who identified himself as a "Hindu-Buddhist-animist", slyly pointed out Sita sitting on Ravana's lap having apparently succumbed to the irresistible charms of the Sri Lankan king! There was even Hanuman beer to quaff down with our meals.
Even as one ruminated over the lost glory, a conclusion I had reached in my book — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, was strengthened, that India's decline began when it stopped expanding territorially, and that it was territorial expansion that sourced the rapid spread of Hinduism and Hindu culture and values in maritime Asia, including China and Japan, and is why 'Greater India' happened. Juxtapose such history with statements by present day Indian leaders claiming India never coveted or occupied foreign lands, and you see the problem!
Anyway back to the quotidian concerns of South Asia!
Every few years when an army chief in Pakistan deigns to vacate his post, the country lapses into a succession crisis. There's another such catharsis afoot in Pakistan today with the imminent announcement of the name of an officer to replace the current chief General Javed Qamar Bajwa who demits office by end-November.
In the order of seniority — which means little, the list of possible successors features Lt General Syed Asim Munir Ahmed Shah — the army's QuarterMaster General and former head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt General Sahir Shamshad Mirza — GOC, X Corps (Rawalpindi) and ex-Chief of the General Staff (CGS), Lt General Azhar Abbas, current CGS and former commander X Corps, Lt General Numan Mahmud, President of the National Defence University and ex-GOC, XI Corps (Peshawar), and Lt General Faiz Hameed, GOC, XXXI Corps (Bahawalpur) and ex-chief, ISI.
If one is a betting man, the odds line up particularly against Faiz Hameed. It is unlikely Hameed will make it for several reasons. He loudly owned up to helping the Taliban defeat the US in Afghanistan and finds himself in the doghouse vis a vis Washington, and those whom the Americans detest have their prospects automatically dimmed in Islamabad. Worse, Hameed publicly tagged his future to the deposed Pakistan Tehreeq-i-Insaaf party PM — Imran Khan Niazi, himself hoisted into the kursi with ISI help, whom Bajwa has accused of propagating a "false narrative" about the Pakistan army (that it interferes in domestic politics and, surprise! surprise! plays favourites!!). For these reasons Bajwa unceremoniously removed Hameed from ISI and dumped him in Bahawalpur. As a consequence, the latter has, as the saying goes, a spitball's chance in hell!
The recent pattern of elevations would suggest the senior most officer who is to be passed over is given an extra pip and appointed Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee — a post presently held by General Nadeem Raza. So the 18th Chairman, JCSC, will likely be Asim Munir Shah. With Hameed out of the picture, the race is then between Mirza, Abbas and Mahmud. Abbas as CGS has the insider's odds on his side. But my intuition says it will be Mahmud who gets the nod because he is in a relatively innocuous post where it is difficult to make enemies and, therefore, seems politically to be the safest.
This is no small metric considering Nawaz Sharif in 2016 chose Bajwa, who was Inspector General, Training and Evaluation, as army chief over corps commanders senior to him. Bajwa's antipathy to Imran notwithstanding, the PTI head has raised such a stink over the next COAS's selection that while picking Imran's choice, Hameed, is out of question, Prime Minister Shabaz Sharif, in consultation with Bajwa, may alight on Mahmud as the least objectionable candidate. This last is important because COAS's appointment has to have President Arif Alvi's consent, and Alvi is Imran Khan's acolyte.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, its prime ministers have often chosen their memesis as army chiefs. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto picked Zia ul-Haq, so down on the seniority list, he wasn't even in the original "summary" the defence ministry drew up. And then at Bhutto's insistence, Zia was included in the seniority list with reluctance by the departing COAS General Tikka Khan.
As Tikka Khan told me when I visited him at his Rawalpindi home in December 1982 when he was under "house arrest" — Bhutto's weakness was he was partial to flattery and loved flatterers. Aware of this, Zia as GOC II Strike Corps, Multan, laid it on thick when Bhutto visited his command headquarters.
There, per Tikka, Zia quite literally kowtowed to Bhutto, even swearing personal loyalty to him with his hand on a copy of the Quran! Tikka recalled, with choicest Punjabi abuses, how hard he tried to dissuade Bhutto from choosing Zia, warning him of "qayamat"! Some years later Nawaz Sharif likewise selected Parvez Musharraf who, after his coup d'etat rather than hang him, as Zia did Bhutto, exiled him to Saudi Arabia.
So, it is hard to tell which officer on the shortlist catches Shabaz's fancy and why, and with what ultimate result.
But let's be clear just how extraordinarily high the personal stakes are. It means instant power and riches to the officer who is selected. Bajwa and his family members, for instance, have for no apparent fault of theirs (!) become billionaires in the 6 years of his tenure with proliferating property and prized land acquisitions in choicest locations in the West, in Dubai and, of course, in cantonment towns within Pakistan! The surprise is Bajwa's tax returns, leaked to the media, reveal this!