Whether or not it is noticed by ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, the way the two countries, born on the same day, appoint the heads of their respective armies marks out the difference between them. The appointment of the Indian Army chief is a routine affair, attracting little public notice, but appointment of his counterpart in Pakistan carries far more significance than even the election of a new Prime Minister. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that whereas in India the PM appoints the Army chief, in Pakistan it is the Army chief who virtually appoints the PM. The above is borne out by the intense weeks-long speculation over the appointment of the new Army chief after the scheduled retirement of the incumbent, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.
All sorts of questions were in the air before Thursday when, at long last, the name of Gen Bajwa’s successor was announced. Lt Gen Asim Munir will take over from Gen Bajwa at the month-end on his retirement after serving for six years, including a second three- year term as extension. Whether he would still seek, and would be dutifully granted by a pliant government, another extension was one of the questions whose answer no one in government was in a position to provide. It was virtually for Gen Bajwa to decide his own time for retirement, such being the clout of the Army in the always shaky civilian set-up. Happily, not only did he choose not to extend his tenure further but he also ensured a glitch-free succession, passing the baton to the senior-most general. Even the apprehension that the President Arif Alvi, an Imran Khan nominee, may sit over the recommendation and decline to notify the appointment turned out to be misplaced. This apprehension arose because Imran Khan as Prime Minister had removed Gen Munir as ISI chief.
But It seems Imran Khan himself has undergone a change of heart, toning down his verbal assault against the Army and America, accusing them of conspiring to oust him from power. If the former cricketer-playboy-turned politician had any political sense he would actually be thanking the two As for not being in power given the broken economy he left behind, with Pakistan staring at starvation for want of enough dollars in its kitty. Though he grossly mishandled the economy and riled Pakistan’s trusted long-term benefactors such as Saudi Arabia, the current coalition government is having to carry the can, as it were. Dragging the Army into his street-level invective had aroused fears about his well-being, especially when he had begun to play favourites among the top Army generals. If he had his way, not only would he have had his favourite, Gen Faiz Hameed, as ISI chief, but would have promoted him as Army chief upon Gen Bajwa’s retirement. This was the main reason Khan, who originally became PM due only to the support of the Army, turned against his benefactors.
For the record, Gen Bajwa in recent days has been at pains to reassure everyone who cares that the Army has least interest in poking around in civilian affairs. Given the experience over the years, most Pakistanis would take the avowal of non-interference with more than a pinch of salt. In a country where by universal acknowledgement the most powerful job is not that of the Prime Minister but of the Army chief, there will be few takers for Gen Bajwa’s commitment to take a hands-off approach towards the civilian administration. But without the Army holding its hand, the civilian Government will find it hard for it to overcome the multi-faceted crises Pakistan faces today. The financial crisis has been further exacerbated by the ferocious floods which hit nearly two-thirds of the country, leaving behind a trail of human misery and material devastation. On top of it all, Khan is set to resume his march to Lahore following a failed attempt on his life. Pakistan needs a spell of extended domestic peace. As it is, the violent fallout of its touchy ties with the Taliban regime in Kabul is beginning to spill into Pakistani territory. Hopefully, the new head of the Pakistan Army will prove a force of good for ordinary Pakistanis.
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