It is almost time for the Pakistan government to make what is likely to be one of the toughest calls of its tenure: who to appoint as the next chief of the country’s Army, the media reported. A senior Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader hinted in background discussions that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif could initiate discussions on the appointment by the end of August, and possibly take a decision by mid-September, Dawn news reported.
In the current cohort, Lt-Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza is senior-most amongst the four candidates belonging to the same batch. A military source, while commenting on his profile, said he was the clear frontrunner for either of the two posts of COAS and CJCSC, Dawn reported.
He hails from the Sindh Regiment; the same parent unit as the outgoing CJCSC, Gen Nadeem Raza. Lt-Gen Mirza has had an impressive career in the Army, particularly in senior leadership positions during the past seven years. He came to prominence as director-general military operations (DGMO) during the last two years of Gen Raheel Sharif`s tenure. In that role, he was part of Gen Raheel Sharif`s core team at the General Headquarters (GHQ), which supervised the military operation against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militants in North Waziristan.
The tradition is that the GHQ sends a list of the four to five senior-most lieutenant-generals, along with their personnel files, to the Ministry of Defence, which then forwards them to the prime minister to pick the officer he finds best suited to the role.
Of the 10 Army chiefs the country has had since 1972, five were appointed by the incumbent`s elder brother, Nawaz Sharif, in separate tenures as Prime Minister. The elder Sharif was repeatedly criticised for appointing officers he saw as an `apna banda` (his man). Ironically, none of the appointments worked out very well for him.
The experience has reportedly left the Sharifs with the belief that they will never quite get it right. Some PML-N leaders said in that they have, therefore, more or less decided that instead of succumbing to the temptation of finding an `ideal` candidate, they will make the appointment based on seniority alone, Dawn reported.
“Then, no matter how things turn out, we will at least be content that no personal choices were involved,” one party leader said.
However, another group within the party speculates that Shehbaz Sharif may simply go along with the current chief`s advice.
Chief of Armed Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa is set to retire in the last week of November. The army chief`s appointment is meant to be for three years, but Gen Bajwa was given an additional three-year term in 2019 after a bit of political drama.
Former premier Imran Khan had given him an extension in August, but the Supreme Court later demanded legislation on the re-appointment of the services chiefs, Dawn reported.
Parliament complied in January 2020, allowing the Prime Minister to extend the tenure of services chiefs at his discretion. The legislation had, however, fixed 64 as the age at which a service chief must be retired.
Gen Bajwa, still 61, can therefore be eligible for another term. This technicality had led to speculation that the incumbent may be seeking or interested in another extension. But according to a military source, Gen Bajwa has communicated to those around him that he will retire in November. Inter-Services Public Relations, too, has confirmed that the chief is, indeed, retiring.
The army chief`s is not the only four-star position that will fall vacant in November. Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) Gen Nadeem Raza will also be retiring at the same time.
Interestingly, four of the six senior lieutenant-generals at the time of Gen Bajwa`s retirement are from the same batch.
At the time when the decision to appoint the next CJCSC and COAS is made, Lt-Gen Asim Munir will be the senior-most among the lot. Although he was promoted to the rank of two-star general in September 2018, he took charge two months later. As a result, his four-year tenure as Lt-Gen will end on November 27, around the same time when the incumbent CJCSC and COAS will be doffing their army uniform. Since the recommendations and decisions for the appointment of the two four-star generals are to be made a little earlier, it would be for Gen Bajwa to decide if his name is to be included and for the prime minister to make the final call.
Lt-Gen Azhar Abbas is most experienced in Indian affairs among the current brass. Currently, he is the chief of general staff (CGS), effectively running the army with direct oversight of both operations and intelligence directorates at GHQ, Dawn reported.
Prior to that, he commanded the Rawalpindi-based but Kashmir-centric and politically-significant X Corps, which indicates that he enjoys the complete trust of the present army chief. It was during his time as commander X Corps that the Indian and Pakistani armies reached an understanding on respecting the 2003 ceasefire agreement along the LOC, and it was Lt-Gen Abbas`s job to ensure compliance on it.
Belonging to the Baloch Regiment, Lt-Gen Nauman Mehmood is currently president of the National Defence University. He also has extensive experience as chief instructor at the Command and Staff College, Quetta. He has commanded an infantry division based in North Waziristan. From there, he was posted as director-general (Analysis) at the ISI, playing a crucial role in foreign policy analysis from a national security perspective. That posting provided him with the opportunity of liaising with foreign intelligence agencies on behalf of the ISI, Dawn reported.
Lt-Gen Faiz Hamid, too, belongs to the Baloch Regiment and is one of the most widely-discussed contenders among the competitors for the top office. Gen Bajwa and Lt-Gen Hamid have reportedly known each other for long. As brigadier, Lt-Gen Hamid served as chief of staff of the X Corps under Gen Bajwa, who was then commanding the corps.
In the last phase of his stint as head of the ISI, he became focus of a controversy between Imran Khan and the COAS as the latter had decided to post him as commander of the Peshawar Corps and the former was not willing to relieve him. He was ultimately posted out to Peshawar, where he served for less than a year before being moved to the Bahawalpur Corps.
Some political pundits say it might be difficult, if not impossible, for the PML-N leadership to consider him for the post of the next COAS due to the highly-publicised nature of his role as ISI chief during the last government`s tenure, Dawn reported.
Lt-Gen Mohammad Amir belongs to the Artillery Regiment and is, at present, commanding the XXX Corps in Gujranwala. He is considered a close confidant of Gen Bajwa.
Previously, he was adjutant-general at the GHQ. As major-general, he commanded the 10 Infantry Division stationed in Lahore from 2017-18. He has also served as director-general Staff Duties at the COAS Secretariat, giving him considerable experience in both GHQ and command positions. Prior to that, he was military secretary to then President Asif Zardari from 2011-13. His career trajectory has brought him into close contact with the political decision-makers of today, Dawn reported.