Re-Imagining the Appointment of Military Chief in Pakistan

<strong>Re-Imagining the Appointment of Military Chief in Pakistan</strong>

The fateful month of November is upon us. With a powerful army chief set to retire soon in Pakistan, speculation is rife about the successor who will take charge of the military and be appointed at the behest of the Prime Minister with a controversial political mandate and a tainted legacy of colluding with the establishment. These objections have gained weightage as the ouster of Imran Khan, the former Premier, seven months ago by the current ruling coalition of 11 parties through the vote of no-confidence has only increased his popular appeal to a level unprecedented in Pakistan’s chequered political history.

The ruling coalition alleges that Imran Khan wanted to elevate his favourite general to the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) position, an impression he sought to dispel after losing power. However, the discourse on military issues is now a part of open dialogue, despite the current administration’s censure of the political views of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) on print and electronic media, the arbitrary arrests and the reported torture of Khan’s close aides.

This is unparalleled.

The civilian control of the military has always been under strain in Pakistan. In its 75 years of existence, the country has been ruled by four military leaders for a substantive span of Pakistan’s political history. Even though multiple reasonings have been made to make sense of military intervention in Pakistani politics, the fractured decision-making on higher defence management matters has not been explored significantly, most notably the army chief’s appointment.

It is wrongly inferred that preferring a dark horse compliant to the whims of the political masters will never dare to infringe on the civilian domain. The bitter experiences of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif demonstrate why this approach did not work out. Modern militaries tend to be professional bodies owing to a sense of corporateness prevalent in the officers’ corps. The group consciousness helps the soldiers identify better with the organisation and engenders loyalty among the rank and file. In Pakistan’s case, expecting the senior-most commander of the army to accept the stewardship of the executive branch has never reduced the military establishment’s dominance on security and foreign policy-related matters in the past. The PDM coalition is repeating the same approach, with Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, in the driving seat.

Further controversy has been added to the mix by the PTI, which is dominating by-elections and has called for the dissolution of the PDM government, perceptibly scandalising the appointment process of the army chief by alluding that Shahbaz Sharif wants to appoint an army chief of his own choice. The media frenzy has escalated to the level that the sitting spymaster of the premier agency had to shun obscurity and conduct a press conference alongside the military’s spokesperson, in order to dispel the impression of partisanship.

A structured leadership transition in the military is too serious a business to be made a burden for select personalities alone. The Constitution under Article 243(3) requires the President of Pakistan as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief to appoint the service’s chief on the advice rendered by the Prime Minister. The idea of merit is only a vaguely held belief that the aspirants for the coveted top slot should have commandeered a Corps. Such an approach has made the system prone to unscrupulous practices as the top operational slot is now equally accessible for the aspirants from down the line in the military hierarchy. Due to that, Pakistan’s political history is a testament to the tribulations caused by the appointment of one’s own liveried yes-man through supersessions and extensions.

Three remedies can be administered to streamline the entire process in line with the universal norms. The selection mechanism should preclude the Prime Minister and the President from the deliberative process and vest the power in the legislative branch. Nominations from respective services headquarters could be routed through the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to the Senate Standing Committee of Defence, which can interview the candidates in an in-camera session. The Senate’s advice and consent shall be binding on the Prime Minister, and the President can authorise the selection made by the Standing Committee. This change would be constitutional in character, and bearing in mind the sensitivity of the appointment, will depoliticise the selection process.

Another way could be forming a committee or an advisory group, which, after deliberations among its members, should decide on the nominations forwarded by the Ministry of Defence. If such a group is constituted, it should include the President, the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC), the outgoing service chief, and the Defence Secretary, who would also serve as the advisory body’s secretary. Like the prior option of constitutionally empowering the parliament, this would streamline the process and allow all essential stakeholders to participate equally in a crucial decision.

The third option is using the seniority principle as the basis for the appointment, taking a cue from the functional democracy on our eastern border. Elevating the next most senior officer from the three-star cadre to the position of the COAS would make the whole process of the appointment apolitical and safeguard the officer corps from external intrigues. The promotional policy in this manner can take precedence over the parochial interests of the political authorities, and the elusive search for the right man will end. In accordance with the broader social trends, the military as an institution emulates specialised professions and has a performance-based promotion system in place. Advancement to the Lt. General rank is a conspicuous and well-recognised measure of the professional competence of the officer. The repeated practice of seeking a suitable senior commander to lead the service sullies its reputation and makes the promotional system questionable. In short, the seniority principle should be preferred over the suitability principle.

Politicians must become imaginative in their approach to create a healthy new equilibrium in civil-military relations. With a creative transition principle being commonplace, the armed forces may ultimately resort itself to stay within its constitutional domain. It would not only strengthen the democratic system in Pakistan but would also enhance the professionalism of its armed forces.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Strafasia.

<strong>Re-Imagining the Appointment of Military Chief in Pakistan</strong>

About Talha Ibrahim and Syed Zulfiqar Ali 1 Article
Talha Ibrahim is Director Research at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. Syed Zulfiqar Ali is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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