Selecting the army chief

PREDICTABLY, Imran Khan’s latest remarks on the issue of the appointment of the new army chief have provoked an intense reaction from both the political and military leadership.

His comments that the ruling parties were “afraid that if a strong and patriotic army chief is appointed then he would ask them about the looted wealth”, is seen as an attempt to “discredit and undermine” the senior leadership of the Pakistan Army.

It is indeed a reckless and irresponsible statement from the former prime minister, bringing the confrontation with his erstwhile patrons to a head. Tensions between the two had been building since the fall of the PTI government in April but the cleavage now seems unbridgeable, with both sides taking the gloves off.

Although Imran Khan’s latest attack seemed directed mainly against the federal government it went wide off the mark. He has not only accused the PDM leadership of trying to bring in an army chief of its own choice but has also questioned the patriotism of the chief who would be appointed. Such a differentiation would make any future army leadership controversial.

It is not surprising that Khan’s comments have drawn a strong reaction from the military high command. It is being seen as an attempt to ‘politicise’ and ‘scandalise’ the entire process of selection of the army chief. The statement was issued at a time when the appointment of a new chief in November is approaching.

Although Imran Khan’s attack seemed directed mainly against the government it was wide off the mark.

The former prime minister is playing a dangerous game that could have huge political consequences for his party. Such pressure tactics cannot win him back the support of the security establishment that he is so desperately seeking. His attempt to divide the military rank and file could also derail the entire democratic political process in the country.

Khan’s tenor is becoming increasingly aggressive even as his popularity rises. There is also a sense of frustration. His desperation seems to have intensified with his failure to push for early elections.

The arrest of Shahbaz Gill, his chief of staff, on sedition charges, and the crackdown on the PTI’s social media activists have increased his sense of insecurity. He often warns against being pushed to the wall. The ban on the live telecast of his rallies and speeches appeared to reinforce his apprehension of the noose being tightened around him.

His anti-establishment stance is also driven by the fear of a move to disqualify him from politics. He is now facing trial on a number of charges, ranging from contempt of court to terrorism and receiving unauthorised funding for his party.

It may not be possible to oust a popular leader from politics but Imran Khan’s own hubris and recklessness could thwart his hopes of returning to power soon.

While rejecting parliament, Imran Khan is now in open confrontation with practically every state institution. His latest remarks regarding the army chief’s appointment may also create a wedge in his own party. Many senior party members find it extremely hard to defend his comments. Their public explanation sounds unconvincing.

The question of who would appoint the new army chief in November has been driving Pakistan’s current political crisis. It was believed to be one of the reasons why Imran Khan’s government was toppled. It was said that the former prime minister was planning to pick a ‘favourite’ for the powerful post and establish army-backed authoritarian rule.

Ironically, Imran Khan’s comments echo the same concerns about his rivals appointing a chief of their choice. What political parties fail to learn are some basic lessons from our history. It doesn’t matter who appoints whom — ultimately an army chief will only serve his institution. It certainly would not have mattered if Imran Khan were allowed to appoint the army chief. The apprehensions were baseless.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency among our civilian leaders to look for someone who they believe would be loyal to them. Often, they would prefer a dark horse over one perceived as more eligible. But when it comes to the crunch it’s the institution that acts. There are many such examples in our history.

Although without doubt one of the finest political minds in Pakistan’s history, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made the same mistake by choosing Gen Zia over several senior generals thinking that he would be loyal to him. The consequences are a part of history.

During his three terms as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif appointed at least four chiefs, clashing with all. In 1999, his government was ousted by Gen Musharraf who was his own appointee. Gen Bajwa, whom Nawaz Sharif holds responsible for his removal, was also appointed by him, superseding some other senior officers.

Interestingly, he was given an extension for a second term by Imran Khan who is seen as having the security establishment’s support during his almost four years in power. It was for this reason that the PTI’s rule was often described as ‘hybrid’.

The former prime minister has now turned his guns on the chief. The credentials of the person whom Khan once described as ‘democratic’ are now being questioned by PTI supporters.

So, all the controversy over who appoints the army chief means little. The perception of a ‘favourite’ is absolute nonsense. The choice has to be from among the four or five most senior officers who all are supposed to be capable of holding the top job. Of course, there may be some who are more talented. Unfortunately, it is the PTI supporters who are publicly naming their ‘favourite’ generals.

A structured transition of the military command strengthens the institution and enhances its professionalism. This is a lesson all political parties, whether or not in power, should learn.

Decisions taken on political grounds will have a negative effect both on the institution and the democratic process. Instead of looking for a favourite general and seeking the military’s support, it is far more important for political parties to focus on strengthening the democratic process. It is a lesson to be learnt from the past.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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