How does the Prime Minister pick the army chief?

Umar Cheema
How does the Prime Minister pick the army chief?

ISLAMABAD: This was a dull morning of November 27, 2013. Khawaja Asif and Pervez Rashid were asked to rush to the prime minister house. Neither of them knew why they had been summoned.

They exchanged notes to determine the probable reason. The situation that unfolded later proved all their guesses wrong. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met them in the porch. He was visibly composed and relatively quiet. He had made important decisions that nobody from the cabinet knew. A car approached them. The PM and his confidants boarded it and the cavalcade moved towards Punjab House.

Nawaz Sharif was going to share his best-kept secret: the new army chief. However, before doing that, he thought to start from what he had decided about the accompanying colleagues. He turned to Khawaja Asif sitting in the back seat, “Khawaja Sahb: I have appointed you the defense minister.” It was quite surprising for the both cabinet members travelling with him. Khawaja Asif already had the portfolio of the water and power.

How this decision would be interpreted by the stakeholders was the most important question. Incidentally, weeks before, Khawaja Asif had been put off the camera telecasting the coverage of a military parade he had attended along with the PM.

However, before the wisdom behind the PM decision could be ascertained, another announcement came. Senator Pervez Rashid was the person being addressed this time. “Pervez Sahb, I have given you the additional portfolio of the Law Ministry,” the PM said.

Neither Khawaja Asif nor Pervez Rashid had any previous experience of the newly assigned ministries. The defense assignment was critical due to the political reasons. The portfolio of law and justice had its own challenges. A lawmaker of legal background is allotted this assignment.

Neither of them asked why they’re picked. The question-answer session had yet to start. The PM then answered the million dollars question: “Who will replace Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani? Raheel Sharif will be the next army chief,” the PM told his colleagues.

This was the first time any cabinet member had come to know about the new chief and it was the most surprising decision he had shared with his colleagues. One of them had heard his name for the first time.

Incidentally, all three of them had suffered terrible ordeals after the military takeover of Gen Pervez Musharraf. They had spent the worst times of their lives together in the Attock Fort. Questions were many and the answers were awaited.

Here they broke the silence. “How did you come to this decision,” one of them asked. “We want to know the plausible reason to our satisfaction,” he continued. And the PM was ready to answer.

“I had interviewed three generals for this slot,” Nawaz Sharif told his colleagues. The interviews with two of them followed by lobbying through strong but notorious references who would approach me for pressing on the selection of their favourites, he further explained. If the people with tainted background are their referees, the PM wondered, what kind of these generals would be.

The situation was different in the case of Gen Raheel Sharif. He didn’t either flatter me or promise anything beyond the call of his duty during the course of interview, the PM told his colleagues. Also, no person had approached me for recommending his candidature, he further explained. Rahil Sharif’s family background further convinced me to conclude the selection process, the PM said, adding the decision was made purely on merit.

Meanwhile, they reached Punjab House where Shehbaz Sharif, Ch Nisar, Lt Gen (R) Abdul Qadir Baloch, Khawaja Saad Rafique and Ahsan Iqbal were present. The PM shared these decisions with them too.

As the hunt is on for new army chief and hectic lobbying is in progress, there are several three-star generals in the race. What will be the merit this time depends on the experience that Nawaz Sharif has had with Gen Raheel Sharif. Sincerity with the civilian administration will take precedence over the seniority list. This is what has been the consideration of every PM; they faced different consequences though.

—Originally published in The News