A weak is a long time in politics in any country as turbulent as Pakistan. For the South Asian nation which is facing multiple crises in several dimensions, criticality of the next seven days or nine days to be exact is due to retirement of General Qamar Jawed Bajwa the Chief of the Army Staff for the last six years on November 29.
While the Army Chiefs tenure in Pakistan is normally for three years through a special dispensation first by then Prime Minister Imran Khan and later due to Supreme Court’s intervention General Bajwa was granted another three years. This extended tenure will be over on November 29th when a new Chief should be taking over despite speculation that General Bajwa may be given an extension.
The significance of appointment of the Army Chief in Pakistan arises due to the unrestricted influence that the Army has on politics which is evident from the fact that during the tenure of General Bajwa – two government’s one led by the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) now Supremo in exile in the UK and a second by Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan were deposed in a manner in which the hand of the Army or more specifically the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) was suspected.
This even as Mr Khan became the first prime minister to have been deposed through a no confidence motion by the National Assembly. An established yet not overtly stated fact in Pakistan is that members of the national assembly can be influenced at the last minute to swing the votes either way.
Mr Khan is roiled by the Army dumping him after supporting his election to power in 2018. But the military was sick of the missteps of the Imran Khan led government in multiple directions from foreign policy to economy and wanted him out.
Who Will be the Army Chief?
Yet the incoming army chief and there is much speculation as to who amongst the top four senior most three star officers it will be may be inheriting multiple crises to handle given the unstated charter of controlling the politics as well as security of the country.
As per the seniority list, Lieutenant General Asim Munir is the senior-most but his tenure as Lt General will end on 27 November thus his eligibility is a question mark. The next in line is Lieutenant General Sahir Shamshad Mirza is the frontrunner for the COAS post followed by Lt General Azhar Abbas currently the chief of general staff (CGS) followed by General Faiz Hameed the favourite of Mr Imran Khan.
The nomination of Asim Munir and Faiz Hameed will be controversial particularly at a time when there is so much political turmoil. Thus Mirza or Abbas may be a safer bet and are also the senior most having professional qualifications to head the Pakistan Army.
First Priority - Ending Political Uncertainty
Thus the first priority will be to end political uncertainty that has arisen due to demand by PTI for an early election. Much of the rhetoric in the past by the PTI on launching the so called Long March is focusing on early elections.
Yet the dates of the final march to Islamabad on 26 November appears to be timed with the appointment of the Army Chief. The underlying signal is that in case the Army Chief appointment is bungled then the PTI will take to the streets. This could be a major miscalculation by Mr Khan as whosoever is nominated as the Chief will end the period of uncertainty and will deal with any unrest with a heavy hand.
The decision on who will be the chief has yet to be taken and it is believed that it is Mr Nawaz Sharif in London who is calling the shots and not his brother and prime minister Mr Shahbaz Sharif. The close confidant of Mr Nawaz – Mr Ishaq Dar who is also the Finance Minister is holding talks with the President Mr Arif Alvi an appointee of the PTI ostensibly on state of the economy but in reality on political direction including possibly early election and appointment of the Army Chief.
The State of the Economy
Yet Mr Ishaq Dar is holding the most important portfolio which could potentially generate a second crisis that is in the economic sphere where there is a real danger of Pakistan defaulting. Mr Ishaq Dar has however ruled out the possibility of a default by Pakistan but not many would tend to believe him.
“We have never defaulted before. We will not even be close to default … Let me clear this categorically that the bond will be paid and there is no delay in this and even arrangements have been made in principal for upcoming payments in the next year,” Mr Dar said on November 19
The third crisis occurs on the terrorism front where increase in terrorist activities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has led to protests by the people in the tribal areas and has created a high degree of insecurity.
The main threat arises from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which has sanctuaries in Afghanistan. The Voice of America states that there are 6500 TTP fighters in Afghanistan. Over 500 security forces have been killed in ambushes by the TTP and this week alone six Pak security forces were killed on a single day.
The PTI government is presently in power in Khyber Pakhtoonwa however accountability is diffused with military charged with countering terror and thus responsible for controlling the spike in violence. The new Army Chief will have to deal with this challenge in a sphere of influence where he has a direct influence yet solutions would be complex.
Rehabilitation of Disaster Affected
Finally, is the challenge of rehabilitation and recovery from the massive disaster of floods which Pakistan experienced in the monsoon season. While high politics continues in Islamabad, the people many of whom in temporary shelters are homeless. The appointment of the Army Chief may upend the political crisis and lead to focus of the administration on governance in this sphere.