Nawaz Sharif would do well to study the past before choosing Raheel Sharif’s successor

Nawaz Sharif has the distinction of appointing four army chiefs in his three tenures as prime minister of Pakistan.

Written by Tilak Devasher | Updated: October 27, 2016 12:34 pm
Pakistan Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif Pakistan Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif

Nawaz Sharif has the distinction of appointing four army chiefs in his three tenures as prime minister of Pakistan. The distinction is, however, dubious, since his relations with each of them have been far from happy.

His previous appointments have been Asif Nawaz Janjua (1991) with whom relations were tense till the general died in harness; Waheed Kakar (1993) who booted him out together with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan; Pervez Musharraf (1998) who made sure that Nawaz Sharif had to enjoy the extended hospitality of the Saudis; and Raheel Sharif (2013) who has whittled down Nawaz Sharif’s stature in proportion to the increase in his own.

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General Raheel Sharif is scheduled to retire on November 29, 2016. He has clarified that he is not interested in an extension. Assuming he doesn’t acquire a larger role, especially in the wake of India’s surgical strikes, what would Nawaz Sharif look for in the fifth army chief that he will appoint? As per media reports, the frontrunners seem to be Chief of General Staff Lt Gen Zubair Hayat, Multan Corps Commander Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed, Bahawalpur Corps Commander Lt Gen Javed Iqbal Ramday and Inspector General, Training and Evaluation Lt Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.

The key factors for Nawaz Sharif would obviously be loyalty and a non-political disposition. However, if he were to dig deeper and make an analysis of previous military dictators, his criteria may change. Previous army chiefs Generals Ayub Khan, Zia ul Haq and Musharraf who overthrew the governments of the day (Yahya was invited by Ayub to “do his duty”) had two things in common: They superseded their seniors and had adverse reports that were nullified by benefactors or providence.

General Ayub Khan (later Field Marshal), who was not the senior-most officer but succeeded General Douglas Gracey as the first Pakistani Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C), had a major blemish in his career. While serving in Burma with the Assam Regiment, General Reece of the British Army had sent him back for showing “tactical timidity”, a typical Britsh understatement. The British high commissioner in Karachi, Sir Gilbert Laithwaite noted: “He (Ayub Khan) was, according to our records, a failure as a commanding officer”.

General Musa succeeded Ayub Khan as C-in-C. When the time came to appoint his successor, General Musa proposed the names of three general officers to Ayub Khan. Ayub added a fourth name — Yahya Khan. Musa told Ayub that professionally there was little difference between Yahya and the other three officers. However, whatever soldiering virtues Yahya possessed were vitiated by his personal shortcomings. Yahya made no secret of his preference for hard drinks and female company. Ayub agreed with Musa’s assessment but felt that fears about Yahya were somewhat unfounded. He appointed Yahya as C-in-C, superseding two other lieutenant generals. Yahya went on to succeed not only General Musa as C-in-C but also his benefactor Ayub as dictator of Pakistan.

The third dictator, Zia, had a confidential report from one of his superior officers, Brigadier (later Major General) Nawazish Ali Khan saying “he is not fit to be an officer in the Pakistan army”. Luckily for Zia, however, the stars were favourable. General Yahya Khan quashed this historic report on the intervention of Lt General Gul Hassan Khan, under whom Zia had served.

To become chief, Zia also ingratiated himself with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in ways that can only be described as obsequious. Stories of this abound. At one stage while Bhutto was on a tour to Multan, Zia, after waiting for hours to see him, told Bhutto that all he had come to do was personally to present the PM with a copy of the Quran and to swear fealty to him upon it. Bhutto, a megalomaniac, was obviously impressed with such abject submissiveness and took to calling Zia his “monkey general”. Not surprisingly, Bhutto chose Zia as army chief superseding seven other lieutenant generals.

Musharraf, by his own account, was an ill-disciplined young man — quarrelsome, irresponsible and careless. In mid-1965, despite the gathering clouds of war with India, he “granted” himself six days leave after it was refused by his commanding officer. Court-martial proceedings were initiated against him but the outbreak of the 1965 war saved him.

In his career, he was given a number of punishments for fighting, insubordination and lack of discipline. Yet providence saved him more than once. He narrowly missed being Zia’s military secretary and would have been with Zia on the C-130 that crashed in Bhawalpur. Finally, Nawaz Sharif appointed him army chief, superseding two other lieutenant generals, a decision he probably regrets even today.

Taking a leaf out of history, Nawaz Sharif would do well to re-examine Raheel Sharif’s record before he starts looking at his potential successors. In either case, comments/incidents that have been corrected should set alarm bells ringing, lest history repeat itself.

(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Generals And Dictators’)

The writer retired as special secretary in the cabinet secretariat, government of India