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General’s first gambit

Pakistan army chief’s choice of officers reflects dynamics within the army — and with civilian administration.

Written by Rana Banerji |
December 16, 2016 1:04:09 am
Pakistan, Pakistan news, pakistan Militants death sentence, Pakistan Army chief, Latest news, International news, world news, army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa Pakistan’s army Chief Lt Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa (Source: AP)

It has taken almost two weeks for Pakistan’s newly appointed army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, to affect his first major reshuffle of senior generals, filling key slots that had fallen vacant, where he would like to have trusted aides of his own choice. This would indicate he was forced to proceed cautiously, given the manner of his elevation to the top post on November 28, 2016, superseding at least two other eligible contenders from the rather top-heavy cohort of the 62nd PMA Long Course — Lt. General Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed, Corps Commander, 2 Corps, Multan, and Lt. General Javed Iqbal Ramday, till lately Corps Commander, 31 Corps, Bahawalpur.

The main issue here was whether the superseded lieutenant generals would follow well-established military tradition, asking for premature retirement once they were overlooked, or if they would complete their normal tenures till their retirement slated for August, 2017. The latter option may have constrained Bajwa’s freedom to act. But after initial foot-dragging, both Ishfaq Nadeem and Javed Iqbal Ramday decided to hang up their boots. In the postings and promotions announced, newly promoted Lt. General Sher Afghan, erstwhile IG, Frontier Corps in Baluchistan, has been posted as Corps Commander to 31 Corps, Bahawalpur. Lt. General Sarfraz Sattar, formerly DGMI and erstwhile defence attache in India, promoted earlier in Raheel’s time, goes as corps commander to 2 Corps, Multan. This is usually headed by officers from the Armoured Corps and slotting Sattar, an Armoured Corps officer, is reverting to form. This posting was not announced publicly initially — which could indicate that Bajwa faced some resistance.

Bajwa himself had to cope with some rather scurrilous rumour-mongering when it became known that he was emerging as a strong “dark horse” for the chief’s post. A prominent Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadis maulvi alleged Bajwa was an Ahmedi or had Ahmediya links. The reference may have been to Bajwa’s wife, who is a niece of late Major General Iftikhar Janjua, a highly regarded Ahmediya army officer who died with his boots on in the 1971 war. In the old days, before Ahmediyas were ostracised, Sunni Muslims sometimes converted to the Ahmediya faith. Since Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Daawa chief Hafiz Mohd Saeed belongs to the Ahle Hadis sect, another interpretation around this canard was that influential Islam-pasand elements in Punjab were hedging their bets and cautioning the political leadership against selecting a chief who would continue the Raheel Sharif line — cracking down on select terror groups, especially those having Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) links. The report elicited a formal denial from the defence ministry.

Bajwa’s next problem was to quickly fill up the crucial chief of general staff (CGS) slot, fallen vacant due to the kicking upstairs of the senior most Lt. General Zubair Mahmood Hayat to the post of chairman, joint chiefs of staff committee. Soon after the army chief’s selection was announced, media circles in Pakistan were agog with the reported shifting of Southern Command and 12 Corps Commander Lt. General Amir Riaz as CGS and posting of the military secretary Lt. General Shahid Baig Mirza to Baluchistan. Intriguingly, this was quickly denied by Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). One reason for scuttling this move could be a perception in civilian circles that Amir Riaz, then-DG, Military Operations, was a possible “hawk” during Imran Khan’s 2014 “dharna” in Islamabad, which was rumoured to have some resonance in military circles. Bajwa has now chosen Bilal Akbar, erstwhile DG, Pak Rangers, to be his CGS, opting for the advantage of better controlling a relatively junior lieutenant general in that post.

Bajwa has expectedly brought in a new DG, ISI. Every chief likes to have his own man in this crucial slot. Rizwan Akhtar was Raheel’s man and worked over two years in this assignment. So his shifting could be fairly routine. He goes as head of the National Defence University. Bajwa has brought in the experienced and senior Naveed Mukhtar, former Corps Commander, 5 Corps, Karachi, as the new DG, ISI. He was earlier deputy director general in ISI, looking after its counter-terrorism division. Mukhtar’s shift was expected among PML (N) circles and could be seen as the collegiate senior generals’ choice for this powerful post. It may also reflect Mukhtar’s good rapport with the new chief. Bajwa may have taken the additional insurance of sounding out Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before formalising this choice.

Among other changes, Bajwa has shifted out Raheel’s DG, ISPR, Lt. General Asim Saleem Bajwa to the somewhat inconsequential post of Inspector General, Arms — never before had a DG, ISPR been elevated to the rank of a lieutenant general. Asim Bajwa’s media blitzkrieg to glorify Raheel’s achievements drew adverse criticism, albeit after his retirement. The new chief has reverted to form, appointing a major general to this post, Fida Hussain Malik, lately serving as GOC, 11 Div, Lahore. Here again, a possible minimal deference to political sensibilities can be discerned for Fida Hussain may have developed good relations with the Sharif brothers as one of the two divisional commanders in Lahore.

Lt. General Nazir Butt, who came from the highly regarded commandant, Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul post, to the National Defence University on promotion last year, goes as the new corps commander to 11 Corps, Peshawar, replacing Hidayat ur Rahman, regarded to have done a fairly good job in Operation Zarb e Azb in his two-year stint at Peshawar. He goes to GHQ as IG,(Training and Evaluation), the “lucky mascot” post which both Raheel and Bajwa held earlier.

These postings do not follow any particularly discernible or familiar pattern, either seeking parity between fighting arms or sending out new promotees to field assignments. However, they do indicate that the COAS is slowly setting out the pawns on his chessboard. Over the next two years, senior lieutenant generals from PMA Long Courses 63 to 66 would phase out before Bajwa’s term as chief draws to a close in November, 2019. It would be too early to assess who becomes a strong contender for the next succession or how the army chief’s relationship with the civilian political leadership develops in the days to come.

The writer is former special secretary, cabinet secretariat.

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