Matter Of Life, Death: Right Man As Pakistan Army Chief

One Prime Minister ended up losing his life and another almost spent the rest of it behind bars despite thinking they covered all the bases for having the right man for Pakistan’s top job: Army chief

Pakistani politicians have been disinclined to have Pakistan army chiefs from Pothohar due to coup fears

Pakistani media have reported Imran Khan was wary of General Syed Asim Munir’s appointment as the army chief.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

November has been the most crucial month in Pakistan’s political calendar every three years since 2007. It is the time when the new army chiefs have taken office or have had their tenures extended. In most democratic countries, these are routine processes and often go unnoticed but not in Pakistan. 

The appointments of army chiefs have backfired even when politicians assumed they had covered all the bases. At least two prime ministers, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif, thought they were playing it safe by superseding officers to have army chiefs they believed would be harmless. But they ended up paying dearly. 

Bhutto chose Zia-ul-Haq as the Pakistan army chief, superseding seven officers assuming he was incapable of mounting a coup. Zia was a refugee from India from the so-called non-martial farming Arian community unlike his four predecessors, who were Pathans and a Rajput. The British-designated ‘martial races’ such as Pathans, Rajputs, and Jats have been the mainstay of Pakistan’s army.

Zia cultivated the image of being the least ambitious general with no base of his own. He also was not from the Pothwar region, where a bulk of Pakistani soldiers has traditionally been recruited from. Politicians have been disinclined to have Pakistan army chiefs from the region due to coup fears. Generals from the region are expected to have the support within the army ranks needed to effectively to mount a coup.

None of these calculations worked. Zia, who was born in Jalandhar and educated at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, proved Bhutto wrong and how. He deposed Bhutto within a year of becoming the Pakistan army chief in 1977. Bhutto was later put on a questionable trial on trumped-up charges and executed two years later in 1979. 

Sharif repeated the mistake Bhutto made by picking Pervez Musharraf as the army chief for similar reasons. Musharraf, also a refugee from India, was named the Pakistan army chief in 1998 superseding two officers.

Musharraf would depose and jail Sharif a year after becoming the chief. Sharif chose to go into exile after he was sentenced to life for preventing Musharraf’s plane from landing in Pakistan after dismissing the general before the 1999 coup.

Other Prime Ministers like Benazir Bhutto and most recently Iman Khan have had their tenures cut short for rubbing the wrong way the country’s powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for over three of the seven decades of its existence.

Khan’s now-scrapped march on the capital Islamabad demanding snap polls was seen as part of his attempt to prevent a 14-party coalition government of almost all major parties from naming Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa’s successor. He vowed not to let Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif pick the successor, claiming it will not be done on merit. 

Shehbaz Sharif named General Syed Asim Munir the chief days before Bajwa’s retirement, ending much speculation over the position as Khan backed off. Munir’s stint as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief ended prematurely within a year after he reportedly fell out with Khan, the then Prime Minister.

Bajwa, who in October announced he will retire a month later and ended speculation that he will seek a third term, got an extension for his second three-year term in 2019 as the head of the world’s sixth-largest army.

Lieutenant-General Nadeem Anjum, the current head of shadowy ISI, claimed in October that Khan unsuccessfully offered Bajwa a ‘lifetime extension’ when the former prime minister faced ouster in March. Anjum made the comments at a rare public appearance for an unprecedented news conference last week.

Anjum rejected Khan’s criticism of the military for plotting his removal in April and backing his opponents. He linked it to their refusal to do illegal or unconstitutional things at Khan’s behest. 

Pakistani media have reported Khan was wary of a Munir and did not want him to become the chief. He was believed to have sought the continuation of Anjum’s predecessor, Faiz Hameed, as the ISI chief and to eventually have him succeed Bajwa.

The disagreement over Hameed’s continuation is believed to have led to Khan’s souring of ties with Bajwa. Khan would earlier insist he was on the same page with the military and that the civil-military ties have never been as harmonious when he was in power.

Khan’s falling out with the military was the latest in a series of such quarrels in the decades-old history of civil-military tensions. Politicians have not always necessarily been at the receiving end.

Bhutto, 37, revolted against Ayub Khan for losing the 1965 war with India ‘at the negotiation table’ two years after the military ruler handpicked the young politician as a minister. Bhutto formed the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and joined a movement, which forced Ayub Khan to hand over power to General Yahya Khan.

The PPP swept the polls that followed in West Pakistan. But Bhutto’s refusal to share power with Awami League, which won the polls in Pakistan’s eastern wing (now Bangladesh), sparked a civil war and led to Bangladesh’s creation in 1971.

Bhutto would succeed Yahya Khan first as the chief martial law administrator, before becoming the president and later the prime minister. He sought to leave nothing to chance by picking Zia, the junior-most eligible officer for the top post. Zia even lacked experience in active combat and had little chance of getting the top job. Zia was involved in the distribution of supplies and provisions during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. He was in Jordan in 1971, quelling a Palestinian revolt, when India dismembered Pakistan.

Bhutto is said to have been impressed by Zia’s submissive behaviour. Zia is once believed to have taken out a cigarette from his pocket only upon Bhutto’s insistence that if he did not so he would have ended up burning his pants after the general hid it upon seeing the politician as a mark of respect.

Zia handpicked Nawaz Sharif at 31 as a minister in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. Sharif rose under Zia’s patronage to first become the Punjab chief minister and the prime minister. Sharif’s problems with the military began in the 1990s and truncated his first term as prime in 1993.  

Sharif appointed Bajwa in November 2016, superseding four officers, three years after returning to power in 2013 following 14 years in the political wilderness. The appointment also backfired as Sharif would accuse Bajwa of pressuring the judiciary when the three-time prime minister was convicted of corruption in 2017 and disqualified from holding public office. He blamed Bajwa for helping Imran Khan come to power. But Sharif backed legislation in 2019 to grant Bajwa an extension after the Supreme Court suspended it.

The tables have since turned with Imran Khan now blaming the military for reinstalling the Sharifs. The roles have reversed. Khan has now emerged as a tougher nut to crack, setting the stage for more tumult in the run-up to the next general election due next year.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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