After weeks of speculations, Pakistan finally has a new army chief. In a departure from previous decisions, the PML-N government went ahead with the principal of seniority this time. The posts of Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) have been handed to the two senior most generals. General Syed Asim Munir has been appointed as COAS and General Sahir Shamshad Mirza as CJCSC, the latter being theoretically the most senior position in the military hierarchy, but is ceremonial in reality. Therefore, all eyes are on the incoming army chief, who would formally take the baton of command from General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the outgoing Army Chief, on November 29.
In any other country, the army chief’s appointment is a routine affair. But this is Pakistan, where the army, as also admitted by the outgoing chief, did play a political role. Therefore, it was all natural that everyone took keen interest in the said appointment. In fact, many including the government ministers were convinced that the real objective of the former PM Imran Khan’s long march was to influence the appointment of army chief.
As things stand, it is clear that the government has prevailed as far as the choice of the new army chief was concerned. There were speculations that the outgoing army chief and a group of generals were not in favour Gen Asim getting the top slot. They pointed to his retirement date which was coming two days before the change of command. However, the government stood its ground and if PML-N sources are to be believed, former PM Nawaz Sharif had made it clear that the government would not compromise on his nominee. Thus the government succeeded in appointing a man of its choice as the army chief. There were reports that certain individuals who were in the race were not happy with the decision; and the reports proved true when Lt Gen Azhar Abbas and Lt Gen Faiz Hameed decided to step down before their scheduled retirement. Both were in contention for the post of army chief.
Gen Asim is taking charge of the army command at a critical juncture – the PTI is demanding early elections; the economy is reeling; and the military’s public image needs to be paid attention to. To top it all, there is resurgence of militancy in the country and Indian generals are giving provocative statements threatening to cross the Line of Control. All this means that Gen Asim’s task is already cut out. The biggest challenge, nevertheless, for the new army chief is to restore the military’s public image. Under Gen Bajwa’s extended term, the security establishment came under severe criticism – first from the PML-N when it was in opposition, and now from Imran Khan.
One of the main considerations for the government in nominating the army chief was to make sure that there is no interference in political matters. It is believed that the government expects the new incumbent to let the civilian government take political decisions, including the timing of the next elections, braving the pressure from the PTI in the context.
Gen Asim has a reputation of being a professional solider and is thought to be one of the generals who is averse to the military’s political role. The government hopes that he will now take steps to make it a reality. The change of command in the army has, in the past, reignited hopes of change. Gen Kayani, Gen Raheel and Gen Bajwa all began their stints with lots of promises. But their careers didn’t end on a positive note, except in the case of Gen Raheel, who hung his uniform on time thanks to refusal by then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif not to grant him an extension.
Like his predecessors, Gen Asim is all set to begin his reign with so much promise. It remains to be seen if he will be different from his seniors at the end of his term.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 28th, 2022.
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