coas appointment

Written by Brigadier Syed Mushtaq Ahmed 12:59 pm Articles, Current Affairs, Pakistan, Published Content

The Appointment of the COAS: An Unending Controversy

Every three years, the autumn in Pakistan resonates with budding news over the appointment of the next Army Chief. The appointment remains a rather routine affair among the other two services (Pakistan Navy and Pakistan Air Force) and elsewhere in the world, passing without a murmur or creating much of a ruckus. It, however, springs out as the most important question in the case of the Pakistan Army Chief, engendering and captivating interest in the public domain.
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Brigadier Syed Mushtaq Ahmed (Retd) has extensive experience in areas of national security, intelligence and strategic issues. He has worked as a Senior Research Analyst in a strategic organisation and has a niche for writing research articles and analytical assessments, specializing in counterintelligence, counter-terrorism and nuclear security.

The Reasons for Interest

Why has the appointment of the COAS attained so much importance? To answer this, one needs to dig out the legacy of appointing the Army Chiefs through the power politics of the country since independence. History has it that during the initial years after 1947, while the political governments acted like a revolving door going in and out of power, the military as an institution continued to strengthen and was tempted to overthrow and take over – thanks to the unending power race among the political elites.

Resultantly in 1958, the Army finally took over, putting an end to the political circus, despite the fact that they had remained the shareholder with the elite for over a decade after partition. Interestingly, however, the period from 1958 to 1969 is nostalgically reminiscent of years of consolidation, development and stability, as also of a slow but steady transition into a security state.

With a short political interregnum, later too, on the pretext of political infighting, corruption and national security etc, the military’s interjections became more of a norm than an exception – the entrenchment of the Khaki’s in the country’s politics was hence a resultant consequence with the rules of business – set and played through the power of the barrel. 

History of Supersession

Right from the beginning, with the appointment of General Ayub Khan as the first native Commander in Chief (C-in-C) in 1951, superseding Major General Akbar Khan and Major General NAM Raza, the precedence was set in selecting the Chief of the choice – apparently on merit. After becoming President, Ayub handpicked General Musa as the C-in-C in 1958 at the cost of the supersession of three Generals.

Risen through the ranks, General Musa was a loyalist to the core and virtually compliant with his boss. On General Musa’s retirement, Ayub opted for General Yahya, the deputy C-in-C, as his replacement in 1966 over the heads of two senior Generals. Despite the supersessions, all these appointments did not create a stir, being done by a powerful President having a strong grip on the military. 

History began to take another turn with the appointment of General Tikka Khan as the first Chief of Army Staff (COAS) after the sacking of Lt. General Gul Hassan by President Bhutto due to lingering anxiety of an existential threat by him. Ironic as it was, Gul Hassan was the one who helped Bhutto ascend the presidential throne. The institution never forgave Bhutto for the unceremonious removal of its Chief.

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The supersession saga continued when in March 1976, PM Bhutto selected an apparently apolitical General Zia ul Haq as the COAS by superseding seven senior generals, driven by the desire of having a yes-man to preclude any eventuality of military adventurism. Sadly, Zia proved to be his fateful nemesis, eventually taking him to the gallows. 

During his long reign of 12 years, General Zia gave himself an extension till the appointment of the next COAS. He nonetheless appointed VCOAS (Generals Sawar, Iqbal and Arif) followed by General Mirza Aslam Beg in March 1987, who the following year became COAS after the death of General Zia in a plane crash in August 1988. Fast forward to 1999, the trend of supersessions continued, and PM Nawaz replayed the same old hand – what followed is, however, part of the country’s history. 

Period of the Lost Decades

The period of the ’90s (1988–99) and that of the first millennium (2008–2018) are largely termed as the lost decades, wherein successive governments of PPP and PMLN (two main political rivals) alternatively shared power between themselves as a result of the charter of democracy. Both governments were wary of the Army’s role, given its de facto control of the country’s rule – half of the time directly ruling the country. 

The politicians’ insecurity perhaps makes it their priority nay compulsion of having a pliable Chief, hence their fiddling with out-of-turn surprise appointments and extensions. In my other article, “Pakistan’s Varying Political Scenarios”, I reiterated the same trend, “..of this becoming such a monumental event, giving a wand in the hand of the political governments in their irresistible desire, of keeping the khakis in line”.

I had underscored, that “this has never been the case and will never ever be, as every successive Chief appointed or given extension, turned out to be always a man in uniform driven by an institutional bent, code and ethics, than a lackey of the political masters. But still, the urge and desire of appointing one’s own Chief continue unabated. Barring few occasions, all such appointments made turned tables on their hopes and expectations”. 

The PPP government followed the seniority principle in appointing General Jehangir Karamat as the Army Chief in January 1996 but also gave an extension to General Kayani in November 2010 during his second term by President Zardari.

The PMLN government was, however, more condescending in its approach and during its three terms, PM Nawaz Sharif had the singular distinction of appointing five Army Chiefs (General Asif Nawaz in 1991, General Pervez Musharraf in 1998, General Ziauddin Butt in 1999, General Raheel Sharif 2013 and General Qamar Javed Bajwa in 2016) – barring Gen Ziauddin Butt (which could not materialize) and Gen Asif Nawaz’’s appointment, all others were out of turn.

Ironically, PM Nawaz is also singled out for drawing blood against his own Chiefs one too many times for which he had to eventually pay dearly – both personally and politically. In tandem with his predecessors’ inclination, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1993 also followed the precedent of superseding six generals in appointing General Waheed Kakar as the COAS, who eventually eased him out of the high office on the pretext of diffusing the political crises.

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Seniority-Suitability Diatribe

The country’s constitution stipulates broadly under article 243 (3) and Schedule V-A of the Rules of Business that the “President has the authority to appoint the Services Chiefs on the recommendation of the PM: officers – of and above the rank of Lt Gens in the three services.”

Strange as though it may appear, other than a vague eligibility prerequisite of having commanded a Corps, there is no stringent criteria/mechanism as in the case of all other Army promotions, which are regulated by army selection boards to pick out the best on the suitability scale. Paradoxically, the promotion/appointment of the COAS is done by a civilian, “who does not have the wherewithal to assess the professional competence of the service chiefs”, stated ex-Defence Secretary Asif Yasin.

The all-important decision is therefore left to his sole judgment and that of some of his cabinet colleagues or informal consultations with the outgoing Chief, being the only measure for selection and thereby giving flexibility to the political leadership of cherry-picking any contender of its choice. In a country where civil-military relations have remained on the edge, with politicians remaining apprehensive of strong military leadership, the propensity of appointing their own Army Chief irrespective of his seniority/suitability is but a natural corollary.

From an institutional perspective, while the seniority principle and a robust selection mechanism governing such an appointment is often a universal norm, our prevalent practice of making hypothetically almost all serving Lt. Gens eligible for the coveted slot makes the system susceptible to manipulative practices. For instance, ill-timed promotions to the rank of Lt. Gen take some of the worthy aspirants out of the race.

Also, making the entire upper rung contenders potentially neutralize the running horses, groomed through a defined process of placement at mainstream hot operational slots by affording an equal chance to the one occupying less challenging assignments.

Repeatedly picking up aspirants from down the line may as well also defuse the professional diligence of forerunners, breeding discontent among the military hierarchy and their susceptibility to falling for political alignments. Weaning away from such a practice is inevitably vital. Considering the sensitivity and importance of the high chair, a selection mechanism may well be in order:

  • One possible consideration could be formalizing a consultative structure with such notables as the President, PM, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC), the outgoing Army Chief and the opposition leader with the Secretary of Defence acting as the Secretary of the forum. 
  • Else, the mechanism proffered by ex-Secretary Defence Lt Gen Asif Yasin (Retd) is worth every penny, suggesting that “nominations be routed/recommended through Joint Staff Headquarters (JSHQ) for its instant screening by a bipartisan Senate Standing Committee, with its recommendation binding for PM’ consideration and eventual ratification by the President”. Albeit, such joint consultative processes or others will need earnest legislative stamping for eventual settlement on a very sensitive issue, taking the sheen off from the unnecessary public discourse.
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“A structured transition of the military command strengthens the institution and enhances its professionalism. This is a lesson all political parties, whether or not in power, should learn”, Zahid Hussain, Senior Analyst, The Dawn, Pakistan.

Why it is Critical This Time Around?

Primarily due to political reasons. The opposition leader Imran Khan questioned the validity of seeking concurrence or approbation of the next Army Chief from Mr. Nawaz Sharif (a convict/absconder) by his younger brother PM Shahbaz Sharif. The caveat, however, is that the latter ought to be mindful of sharing confidential information, which may invoke legal questions of being violative of his oath of office and breach of the official secret act.

With November approaching fast, when latest by that time the announcement must be made, Pakistan is up for another political upheaval, unless the miltablishment plays a deft hand (like elsewhere), in either influencing the political leadership to choose its nominee among the five sent up, or go by the seniority as an easy way out of the present looming impasse. 

Acquiescing to the prevalent notion of extending the term of the present incumbent is a non-starter. Considering General Bajwa’s refusal for any further extension, such an incident will erode his credibility and that of the institution further. In any eventuality, if the lag comes in the replacement, the stand-in mechanism is activated according to the succession plan and the existing institutional practice, wherein the senior most nominated Corps Commander takes over as the acting COAS, till such time a new Chief is appointed.

Also, all the anxieties about the slot being left vacant or the inability of the interim government (if it comes to that) to make an appointment hence become redundant. On the flip side, the London huddle between the two Sharifs and a tacit nod by the establishment to afford PMLN a level playing field in the next elections has apparently augured well for the party.

The back-to-back acquittals of Mr. Ishaq Dar (erstwhile absconder), the newly appointed Finance Minister, and Ms. Maryam Nawaz in the corruption cases are just but a few indicators.

Ms. Maryam’s exoneration from a seven-year sentence opens up the political field, making her a potential replacement for her uncle PM Shahbaz Sharif through a possible hastened by-election by a facilitating Election Commission – right in time for making a decision on the most important appointment of the fall this year. This is well-nigh a likelihood – thanks yet again to the dramatic judicial volte-face on the corruption cases.


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