Under Pakistan law, incumbent Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is empowered to select any one of the top three-star generals. But politically it means installing someone who may pull the strings and even determine the fate of the person who appointed him.
The army, often referred to as the “deep state” or “establishment” is Pakistan’s most influential institution. It has ruled the country for about 36 of its 75 years of existence. It is widely accepted that no civilian government in Pakistan has survived without the blessings of the army.
Top army officials are notorious for pulling the strings behind the scenes. The opinion and suggestions of the army brass carry massive weight in framing policies, including defence and foreign.
The new army chief could set the tone for the conduct of relations with India, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and determine whether Pakistan tilts more toward China or the United States.
Six names under consideration
Six names are believed to be in reckoning for succeeding Gen Bajwa: Lt-Gen Asim Munir, Lt-Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza, Lt-Gen Azhar Abbas, Lt-Gen Nauman Mehmood, Lt-Gen Faiz Hamid and Lt-Gen Mohammad Amir.
The tradition is that General Headquarters sends a list of the four to five senior-most lieutenant-generals, along with their personnel files, to the Ministry of Defence, which then forwards them to the PM to pick the officer he finds best suited to the role.
The credentials of the generals are then deliberated upon either at the PMO or in the cabinet. The matter comes down to the PM’s ‘informal consultation’ with the outgoing army chief, his own perceptions and his discussions with his closest advisors.
Shehbaz Sharif consults brother
PM Shehbaz Sharif has already initiated consultations with his government allies, and he recently paid a private visit to London where he consulted PML-N supreme leader Nawaz Sharif regarding the army chief’s appointment.
Of the ten army chiefs the country has had since 1972, five were appointed by Shehbaz Sharif’s elder brother, Nawaz Sharif, in separate tenures as PM.
Backroom meetings and confusion
The process to pick a successor to the army chief is usually shrouded behind a barrage of backroom meetings and dealings. As a result, often even the closest allies and advisors of the PM are in the dark about the final decision.
While defence minister Asif said that a name could be announced early next week and that the PM had started consultations on November 18, interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said that consultations had already been completed and that the new Army chief would be appointed “in a day or two”.
Meanwhile, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Asif Ali Zardari said the appointment should not be politicised. “All three-star generals are equal and capable [to hold the office],” the former president said. PPP is Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) largest ally in the Shehbaz Sharif-led government.
Shehbaz Sharif is likely to meet Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Zardari over the weekend.
On its part, for the first time since coming to power, the PDM alliance-led federal government has initiated a dialogue with ousted PM Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to resolve political issues, including the appointment of the new army chief.
The ousted PM
Imran Khan has repeatedly attacked the Shehbaz Sharif government for trying to pick an army chief that will help the administration protect “looted wealth and steal the general elections”.
The PTI chairman has further alleged that Nawaz Sharif wanted to influence the appointment of the next army chief.
“[PML-N supremo] Nawaz Sharif wants to appoint an army chief who will disqualify me and get him (Sharif) exonerated from all corruption cases and then bring him to power,” he said.
Since he lost power in April this year, Khan — who himself was widely seen as being installed by the deep state — has been an outspoken critic of “the establishment”.
Attempt to tweak Army Act
The former premier also said the incumbent government was amending the Army Act for its vested interests. “The PDM government wants to bring down the status of Pakistan Army to the level of Punjab police,” he remarked, and added that the PTI would challenge the proposed amendment in courts.
The Pakistan government is seeking to amend the 1952 Act to have greater authority over the appointment and retention of the army chief.
The planned amendment would empower the PM to retain an incumbent army chief with a simple notification rather than through a complex constitutional process which also requires the President’s assent.
Gen Bajwa’s legacy
Appointed chief in 2016, Bajwa sought to balance ties with China and the US. While Islamabad moved closer to Beijing, Bajwa also worked to thaw relations with Washington.
He made highly-publicised visits to Beijing and the Middle East – helping to secure financial assistance for Pakistan. He also lobbied Washington to help strike a deal with the International Monetary Fund.
He even summoned Pakistan’s top industrialists to a meeting at army headquarters to encourage them to pay more tax.
Domestically, Bajwa was accused of political meddling. Politicians said he helped Imran Khan become prime minister in 2018. In an about-turn earlier this year, Khan accused Bajwa of playing a part in his downfall.
( With inputs from agencies)