PTI chief Imran Khan has engaged in being dangerous. The comments he has been making about the Army, particularly its leadership, have not only dragged into the public gaze an institution which has avoided it, but has also revealed an ignorance of how the organization ticks. The ignorance is so abysmal, especially for a former PM, that the possibility of his lying to his followers is raised.
In successive weeks, he has raised two issues. First, that PML(N) Rehbar Nawaz Sharif and PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari cannot be trusted to appoint the new COAS because they are looters and plunderers, and would seek to appoint someone who would cover these crimes. If, Imran argued, a patriotic and strong officer was appointed, he would expose their thefts. The implication was that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif would appoint an unpatriotic and weak officer as COAS.
This implies that such an officer can be found. Imran has thus criticized the entire process of selection, and then promotion, of the Pakistan Army, which would allow an unpatriotic and weak person to reach the rank of lieutenant-general, and thus become eligible for promotion as COAS.
That was something Imran suggested in an address at a rally. The second place where he showed ignorance was when, in a TV interview, asked how the new COAS could be appointed by the next government if there was a gap in between, he refused to say the incumbent could get an extension. However, his not rejecting this was taken as a suggestion. This also showed not just a misunderstanding of how the military functions, but the place of the COAS in the Army’s scheme of things.
The COAS has two overt functions, and one potential. He is the chief of staff of the Army, which means carrying responsibility for such responsibilities as training and equipping (what weapons? Where are they to come from?). He is also the operational commander. While the staff function may have a vacancy, the command function cannot. As a result, there is a prescribed procedure for the absence of a COAS abroad, or any sudden vacancy in the office.
When Gen Asif Nawaz suddenly died, the designated officer (then the Corps Commander Lahore) flew at once to Rawalpindi and took over as acting Chief (even though two lieutenant-generals were senior to him, the CGS and the DG ISI). This was because he was a corps commander.
Imran is committing the mistake of giving too much importance to the tertiary role [of the COAS]. As a matter of fact, the PDM politicians are probably doing the same. Because of this, it is not possible for the military to completely withdraw from politics. The very act of resisting these attempts is itself political.
This is not a special procedure for the COAS. It applies to any commander: if a brigade commander is hit in battle, and has to be evacuated to treat his wounds, the senior most unit commander will be called to brigade HQ to take command for the time being, until GHQ appoints a new commander. This also applies to senior and junior commanders. Thus, there is no need to extend the incumbent’s tenure. Let him go home when the time comes, the senior most among the corps commanders would almost automatically come to take command. If he remained in position until a new COAS was appointed, though the Army might be in a sort of interregnum, it would not be without a commander.
What Imran does not seem to have calculated, is that the COAS may seem to control the military, but is actually just an expression of his service. The COAS has an indefinite constituency to satisfy, consisting of his officer corps. That officer corps gives the COAS total obedience, but in turn expects him to keep it out of politics. This has applied even during military rule, when a number of officers also have civilian roles.
The COAS is seen as the key, but he is also a weak link, as this is the only appointment made by a civilian. All other promotions are made by the Army Promotion Boards. The COAS makes no promotions alone, but only as the Chairman of a board. He does what he wants, but this will not be the first time he chairs a board. He will have chaired boards as a divisional and corps commander, and been a member even earlier. The PM is not obliged to consult anyone, as the COAS is.
Thus, there is a murmur that seniority should be the deciding factor. Violating seniority, it seems, has not got either the PPP or the PML(N) anywhere, and there is no reason why the PDM should be any different. That would leave the decision effectively to the board promoting major-generals to lieutenant-generals. If seniority is to determine who will become COAS, then all a lieutenant-general could do is to ensure that he does a staff job, and commands a corps. If he is of the right seniority, he will automatically become COAS. If not, nothing he will do will make him COAS.
In a way, that will bring the three services (because the Air Force and Navy will follow the Army) into line with the judiciary, which has become independent and autonomous in respect of the politicians, even though theoretically judges are elevated by the President. The mechanism there has been the Judicial Commission of Pakistan, which consists of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, four senior Supreme court judges, a retired judge, the federal law minister, the Attorney General, and a nominee of the Bar Council. However, the CJP thinks he should get his nominees in, and his speech at the beginning of the new judicial year indicated that he felt the government’s opposition to his choices was because of certain judgements made by the Supreme Court.
There has been a writing of letters to the CJP by other judges, and it seems that the issue is whether the CJP should make decisions, or should there be a collective decision, or should there be only one. It also has transpired that there is no set criteria for judges’ appointments or elevations.
The seniority principle has the advantage of certainty, but there is the danger of the Buggins’ Turn syndrome, where a sort of sclerosis sets in, in the service. A brilliant officer might not win promotion because he had the wrong seniority. The danger is a little exaggerated. That brilliant officer would have risen at least to lieutenant-general, commanded a corps and done a PSO’s job, and thus contributed to the Army. The officer promoted in his stead would probably be up to the job. True, a diamond may have been retired as a major, but he would not have ever been made COAS from that rank. He would first make lieutenant-colonel. But he didn’t.
However, the seniority principle was tried in the UK after the end of the commission-purchase system (whereby an officer would have to buy the next higher rank from someone who had the commission for it; otherwise, it was not unknown for officers to retire as lieutenants, having bought a commission initially, but not being able to buy promotion). The result was a geriatric lot of officers. It could be argued that that was the lot with which the Empire was won and maintained.
That is a useful reminder that the COAS is essentially a military assignment, and his primary function is to prepare the Army to perform its functions, his secondary to be ready to command it in the event of conflict. Any political role is tertiary, and comes from his control of two intelligence agencies, the ISI and the MI.
Imran is committing the mistake of giving too much importance to the tertiary role. As a matter of fact, the PDM politicians are probably doing the same. Because of this, it is not possible for the military to completely withdraw from politics. The very act of resisting these attempts is itself political.