Posted on Friday, January 13, 2017
in The Friday Times (Editorial)
The appointment of Gen Qamar Bajwa as COAS seems to have stabilized polity, for the time being at least. He has swiftly moved to stamp his authority on the army by a string of promotions, transfers and postings in the high command. Three decisions, in particular, are noteworthy because they suggest a recalibration of certain policies.
The Karachi Corps commander, Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar, has been nominated DGISI and the Sindh DG Rangers, Maj Gen Bilal Akbar, has been promoted to Lt Gen and installed in GHQ as Chief of General Staff. The ISPR will henceforth be managed by a Maj Gen, Asif Ghafoor, unlike in the immediate past when a Lt Gen, Asim Bajwa, was running the show.
The nomination of DGISI, like that of the army chief himself, is in the domain of the prime minister. So we can assume a degree of concurrence in this appointment. But it is significant that the outgoing ISI chief, Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, has been shunted to the National Defence University instead of being given command of a corps which would have entitled him to sit in the corps commanders meeting and weigh in with his opinion and experience, first as DG Rangers Sindh and then as DGISI. It may be recalled that Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, like his predecessor Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam, presided over a turbulent period in civil-military relations, even though no intrusive charges were ever laid at his door by the civilians like they were at that of his predecessor. Clearly, General Qamar Bajwa means to give a freer hand to the new appointees in both these positions to recalibrate respective policies in light of his own perspective.
The promotion and appointment of Lt Gen Bilal Akbar is equally significant. Normally this position of CGS is reserved for the senior most general after the army chief and almost as a stepping-stone for the slot of army chief itself. But in this case a relatively junior general has been put in charge. This means that Gen Qamar Bajwa intends to keep a direct and firm grip on internal army matters, especially promotions and postings. He will also draw comfort from the fact that an expert on the situation in volatile Karachi is always at hand for sensitive input.
The most significant change is in the status of the ISPR. Under COAS General Raheel Sharif, the post was first upgraded from Maj Gen to Lt Gen and then DGISPR Lt Gen Asim Bajwa was given a free hand to manipulate public opinion, often at the expense of the elected government and prime minister, especially when elevating the army chief to rather heroic proportions. This became a source of great tension in civil-military relations. But in the new dispensation, the ISPR will likely revert to a lower profile role under Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, which is the need of the hour. The shunting of Lt Gen Asim Bajwa to the relatively obscure post of Inspector-General Arms at GHQ implies Lt Gen Asim Bajwa won’t be stirring up any further misunderstandings with the government.
All this is for the good. Unfortunately, however, the same cannot be said for the controversy that has arisen following reports that Gen Raheel Sharif has accepted a high profile, highly remunerative position as Commander-in-Chief of the 39-country coalition force against Syria, Iran and Iraq cobbled by Saudi Arabia. If true, this is an ill-advised move. Pakistan’s parliament and government have clearly shown their intent to stay clear of any such organization. It also does not behove a newly retiring Pakistan army chief to parachute into such an organization that could create a fierce conflict of national interest. But the government’s handling of this affair hasn’t been too comforting either. At first, Khwaja Asif, the Defense Minister, indicated that the prime minister was in the loop. Then he told the Senate that General Raheel had not obtained an NOC from GHQ or the PMO. Gen Raheel also seemed to backtrack in the face of a public backlash: he has let it be known that he won’t accept the position unless three preconditions are met, one of which is to include Iran into the organization (verily a no no for the Saudis) so that it doesn’t smack of sectarianism. Significantly, this episode has unwittingly drawn attention to the unsavoury practise among retiring generals to clutch at remunerative and sensitive posts with foreign governments. An ex-CJCSC, who also served as DGISI, and another ex-DGISI have been guilty of lining their pecuniary and mundane interests in this manner without any accountability. Two ex-army chiefs, General Pervez Musharraf and General Aslam Beg, have also admitted being beneficiaries of Saudi largesse.
While Gen Qamar Bajwa mulls this backlash, he should also take stock of the social media activists who have “disappeared” on his watch. It doesn’t require rocket science to figure who “disappeared” them. The sooner they are released, unharmed, the better. This is not the way for the new chief to open an innings.