Islamabad,:Nothing creates so much political heat and media frenzy in coup-prone Pakistan as does the appointment of the Army chief, whose power flows not from the canon of any statute book but from the cannons of steel and fire.
Lately, this exercise in the nuclear-armed country has also attracted global attention due to the implications of the job performed by the head of the military.
The appointment of a successor to Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is set to retire on November 29, is an administrative matter.
Under the law, the incumbent prime minister 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 power of the Army chief flows not from the canon of any statute book but from the cannons of steel and fire; this power is historical and not constitutional. Still, it is a real hard power.
The powerful Army, which has ruled the country for more than half of its 75-plus years of existence, has hitherto wielded considerable power in matters of security and foreign policy.
Since its founding in 1947, Pakistan saw seven prime ministers in quick succession in the first decade. While the constitutionalism wilted under palace intrigues and mismanagement, then military chief Gen Ayub Khan grabbed power in 1958 by imposing martial law in the country.
He ruled with an iron fist until becoming unpopular and was finally forced to resign in 1969, but he handed over power to another general, Yahya Khan, who ruled till the end of 1971, and was kicked out after Pakistan was dismembered following a brief war with India and its eastern arm became an independent nation – Bangladesh.
Two more military dictators followed – Gen Zia-ul-Haq from 1977 to 1988; General Pervez Musharraf 1999 to 2008 – both left bitter memories of internal discord and conflicts on the periphery of the country.
Thus, the Army ruled for about half of the history of Pakistan directly and during the other half indirectly or by proxy. That is why none of the 19 elected prime ministers completed their allotted five-year constitutional term. Another 11 premiers were appointed for a short term to oversee the elections or as a stop-gap arrangement.
The post of Chief of Army Staff is a tenure appointment for three years but many of them got extensions – the last in the category is the incumbent, Gen Bajwa who was appointed in November 2016 but his term was extended in 2019 for another three years.
He has worked with four prime ministers during this period. Two of them, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, were removed prematurely. Sharif was hounded out through courts when he was convicted of corruption, while Khan was voted out through a no-confidence motion in Parliament.
Both Sharif and Khan reacted, albeit differently, against their removal. Sharif attacked the top military command in measured terms for his woes, but Khan charged at the army in a vicious manner.
Khan’s big support base and backing from some former Army officers, including ex-generals, put the current military leadership in a tight spot, and for the first time in the history of Pakistan, the Inter-Services Intelligence secret agency chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum had to address a press conference to reject Khan’s allegations.
Among other issues, Khan demanded the next army chief should be appointed by the new government coming from the fresh election. He even proposed another extension for Gen Bajwa.
As the government refused to accept his demand for snap elections and delay the appointment of the new chief, he on a daily basis lashed at the government while reserving some of the sharpest arrows for the army leadership.
His critics allege that Khan was trying to make the high-profile appointment controversial at a time when the country needs a strong military leader to defeat the remnants of local militants, tackle the evolving situation in Afghanistan, build trustworthy ties with the US and ease tensions with India.
So far the former premier has remained undaunted and defiant despite an attempt on his life on November 3 in Punjab province when he dodged the assassin’s bullet by a narrow margin.
The government is in no hurry to announce the new chief who should be one of the top four or five generals. The delay has given birth to doubts and rumours. The government is planning to amend the Pakistan Army Act (PAA) of 1952 to make it easier to briefly extend the services of an Army officer.
Though General Bajwa has started paying farewell visits to various formations, a tradition kept by his predecessors, and the army announced that he would doff-off his uniform at the appointed hour, but delay in the announcement of the new appointment, unending criticism by Khan and tweaking the army law makes a lot of room for speculation.
The high drama around the key appointment has not gone unnoticed around the world as the Army chief of a nuclear-armed country, when it is also facing political turmoil and economic meltdown, is by no means an ordinary affair.
The delay in the appointment has created uncertainty and political confusion. Neither Pakistan nor the world can afford it. Luckily November 29 is not far away and the mist around who will be the new army chief of Pakistan will soon clear away.