Appointing a new army chief

It does not matter who heads our army, but it does matter that the civilian leadership must provide good governance.

Muhammad Ali Ehsan July 29, 2013
The writer is a research scholar who is doing PhD in civil-military relations from Karachi University. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Pakistan Army

In the context of the game of golf — the most favourite game of our general officers — the appointment of the COAS in the army is like the ‘Kevlar driver’ in the golf bag. Other clubs are also good; they may even be used for some drives, chipping and putting. But it is the long drive in the fairway — the most important tee off, executed by the driver, without which — all golfers know — everything falls apart. The COAS thus must be selected based on his capability to execute that long straight drive that brings the ball closest to the pin. For if he lacks the professional competence to do that, then like General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, he may execute the wrong drive and thus land the ball not on the fairway but in the rough. The ball must stay on the course. That, in essence, is the responsibility of the COAS. General Ashfaq Kayani kept the army in the fairway and for that he earned the reward and acclaim of all. Never before had an army chief been given an extension of a complete tenure and never before had the purpose of extension been sold to the public as well as the previous government did.

Here we are again — the civilian bosses, all of them, putting their heads together to appoint an army chief. Like always four factors guide them to make the choice: seniority, merit, professional competence and loyalty. Any one factor may stand out when the final decision is made but one thing is certain. Appointing the COAS in Pakistan is never ‘business as usual’ and against all the forecasts and predictions, the civilian bosses may just end up doing what they do best —  surprise us all with their final selection. The not so essential but relatively important element that is propelling almost all analysts to seriously consider and make a forecast about the appointment of the next COAS is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s pre-election statement. Giving an interview to an Indian news channel on May 6, he said, “I don't think he [General Kayani] will ask for any further extension or he will be interested in any further extension. I will go by the book; I will go by the merit. Whosoever is senior most, will have to occupy … the next one, the next in line”.

Going by the book, the prime minister can technically appoint any general officer regardless of his position ‘in line’. Yet, if merit is the factor by which the prime minister should go, then the line actually does not matter. The ‘next in line’, which in this case is Lieutenant-General Haroon Aslam, is posted as Chief of Logistic Staff — a relatively unimportant post from where traditionally, no officer has ever been elevated to the post of COAS. Had he been the choice candidate of General Kayani, he would not be occupying the post he is currently occupying. Appointments, postings and transfers of general officers are the sole prerogative of the COAS. In their posting and appointments, it is not the seniority of the general officers that is counted but the professional competence to do the job. Thus, a system of merit already runs in the army and the next in line to be promoted is always the chief of general staff (CGS) appointed by nobody else but his boss, the COAS.

The general officer occupying the post of CGS is actually considered army chief’s choice for his replacement on merit. Presently, Lieutenant-General Rashid Mehmood is occupying the post. Ideally, the merit posting of the CGS by the COAS should leave no doubts with the prime minister so as to whom he should appoint as the next chief. But history tells us that the last time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a choice, he did not consider merit as a factor for selection. General Gehangir Karamat had already posted General Ali Kuli Khan as CGS, thus communicating his choice of the next COAS on merit. But the civilian bosses felt that loyalty should be given more value as the determining tool for the selection for the coveted post and so they found General Musharraf and thus selected and promoted him. Who knows, had the choice been made on merit we may be living today to witness a better Pakistan.

But today, if anything, the post 9/11 environment and the complex battlefield it has thrust upon us merits that the military leader selected for the post of COAS must be able to bring about decisive effects. All generals are able and trained to maintain and lead a professional army. But when it comes to fighting internally against an enemy network spread along the length and breadth of our country, we need a military commander who carries a pedigree of routing out militancy. Belonging to Tank, Waziristan Lieutenant-General Tariq Khan, the present Corps Commander of Mangla Corps, to his credit, has the distinction of being the only officer among the aspirants for the coveted post to have led operations as a general officer in the militant strongholds on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Swat, Buner, Dir, South Waziristan, Bajur and many other places are all filled with the stories of how the myth of militants in the area was broken and how the army succeeded in establishing control under the leadership of the general. When it comes to experience in fighting the war on terror and understanding the ever-changing military dynamics on our western border, General Tariq seems to be the man.

In the context of civil-military relations, traditionally ‘loss of control over military’ is the fear that guides civilian authority in selecting the man to lead the all-powerful army. ‘Leading from behind’ is the kind of COAS that the civilian authority today wishes and desires. The civilian mindset is clear. It wants an army to implement and execute the national security policy rather than formulate ad design it. With this in mind and the review of our national security high on the civilian agenda merit, yet again, may not be the only factor to select the general officer for the post of COAS.

Lastly, the prime minister would do well to decide and announce the appointment of the COAS. This would put to rest the unnecessary media speculations and also allow the designated chief enough time to make preparations for the long haul ahead. Transition in Afghanistan and the military challenges that this transition may pose on our western border is one of the biggest challenges besides many others that the new chief will face on assumption of his duties.

No matter whom the prime minister appoints as the army chief, he and his batch of civilian advisers may do well to understand that it does not matter who the person that heads our army is but it does matter that the civilian leadership must succeed and provide good governance. Else, matters of national security would continue to propel the army to do what Michael Corleone lamented in The God Father Part III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in”.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2013.

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khan | 10 years ago | Reply

we may write lengthy article on these type of irrelevant issues. as a common man , we need basic necessities of life . who so ever becomes "king" , am not concerned . i am only worried who can guarantee me , my family the "security" , "food" , "dignified existence" and education.i would request the author to write for the "growth" and "well being " of poor.

nizamuddin khan | 10 years ago | Reply

It should be noted that a person in power likes to surround himself/herself with like minded individuals. This applies to COAS or PM. To me Gen A Kayani is not a man of accomplishments but rather a man who survived only because of USA's support. His term was extended at a time when USA did not want a Gen who could potentially topple the (fragile) government of Pak.

If Gen Kayani knew how to make a choice then it is only with USA's help. The state of the country in terms of internal security for the common man is worth taking a note of and asking any General what will they will ever do about it if they become the next COAS. If we don't then the country will collapse on itself at some point.

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