COAS’s ‘options’


WEB DESK: A report in the media says Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif is anxious to get a final decision on Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif’s future after his scheduled retirement in November.

The report says General Raheel Sharif has been offered two options: either to be elevated to Field Marshal or promoted as Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC). The former is a largely ceremonial designation and the latter less than the all-powerful post in the US armed forces, on which the structure is modelled.

In our specific set-up as it has evolved, the COAS is still the most powerful post, with the CJCSC’s role largely that of a co-ordination command amongst the three defence arms, the army, air force and navy. The PM would like the issue settled before he leaves for the US in the middle of this month, and certainly does not want to prolong the matter. The report in question says federal Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif were the conduit through which the PM’s offer was conveyed to General Raheel Sharif when they met him not so long ago. Both options convey the PM himself is not too keen on extending the COAS’s tenure beyond his three-year normal term that ends in November.

The COAS on the other hand attempted to quash all the media speculation regarding his future plans by categorically turning down an extension months ago. This has been reiterated the other day by ISPR DG Lieutenant-General Asim Bajwa during a media briefing, in which he said there was no change in the COAS’s stated intention to retire and go home and that the media should stop speculating about the same. To be fair, the media is not entirely to blame for its seeming obsession with the question of the looming transition in the post of COAS, given our history. The report quoted above states that judging from the repeated statements of ministers over the last few months since the question gripped public and media attention, it appears that neither the COAS is interested in an extension nor is the PM keen on offering it.

The report ascribes the PM’s reluctance to his uneasiness regarding an extension, given General Raheel Sharif’s tremendous public respect and admiration in the context of tackling terrorism and lawlessness. Unlike his predecessor General Kayani, General Raheel Sharif has firmly grasped the nettle and shown the world unprecedented success against terrorists and criminals. It may also be recalled that it was General Raheel Sharif’s determination and clear headed approach after the Karachi airport attack (which triggered the Operation Zarb-e-Azb) and the APS Peshawar massacre (which produced the civilian-military consensus on the counterterrorism National Action Plan) that not only endeared him to a hapless public but also helped nudge the political class away from its illusions regarding the possibility of a negotiated peace with the terrorist fanatics and towards the required firm action.

The rules regarding the appointment of a new COAS lay down that the outgoing chief nominates three successors from amongst the senior most Generals to the PM, whose prerogative it is to appoint one of them or reject them all and appoint someone else of his choice. On the face of it this seems eminently acceptable, but the wide discretion it leaves in the hands of the PM has, if the past is any guide, proved risky and full of pitfalls if the appointing authority gets it ‘wrong’.

To substantiate the point, three examples from the past should suffice. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto appointed General Ziaul Haq COAS by superseding six senior Generals. Nawaz Sharif appointed General Pervez Musharraf in similar fashion. We all know how both those decisions panned out. PM Nawaz Sharif has in addition the ‘ghost’ of his treatment of COAS General Jahangir Karamat, which led to the latter’s resignation, to reckon with. Arguably it was the manner and circumstances of General Karamat’s departure that hardened the military’s determination not to allow any other COAS to be so humiliated, and may have fed into the coup that overthrew Nawaz Sharif in 1999 when he attempted to dismiss General Musharraf.

The aspiration for civilian elected PMs’ authority over the military and its commanders’ appointments may be unexceptionable in principle, but we cannot ignore the real, and continuing, balance of civilian and military power. Ideally, given this history and the ground realities, it may be advisable to stick to the seniority principle when it comes the appointment of the COAS.

Any deviation from this principle should be the exception rather than the rule and for good, cogent reasons, which the appointing authority should reduce to writing and make public. Although this may seem humiliating for senior Generals bypassed thus, and may seem a reversal of the tradition whereby senior Generals having a legitimate expectancy to be promoted COAS resigned quietly if bypassed, it may well be the best way forward to avoid unnecessary speculation and even ruction whenever a new COAS is to be appointed. In other words, what may be needed is an institutionalisation of the process, with the rules clearly set out and known to all, and discretion kept to a minimum.

Source: Business Recorder