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Will Pakistan's army chief stay on?

October 13, 2015 23:33 IST

'Already, there is talk of a possible extension for Raheel Sharif in the context of his perceived sterling, but incomplete work in the war against terror, as also the cleansing of crime and extortion networks in Karachi,' says Rana Banerji.

IMAGE: 'A course mate of Raheel's deceased war-hero elder brother Shabbir Sharif, Musharraf has reason to be grateful to General Sharif for having conveyed to the political leadership the army's reservations against Musharraf being tried for treason.' Photograph: Mian Khursheed/Reuters

On September 22, Pakistan's army promotion board approved the promotion of four major generals as lieutenants general against four vacancies of retiring lieutenant generals.

The officers promoted are Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa, currently director general, Inter-Services Public Relations; Lieutenant General Sadiq Ali, erstwhile vice military secretary; Lieutenant General Umar Farooq Durrani; and Lieutenat General Aamir Riaz, erstwhile director general of military operations. Those retiring include corps commanders of Quetta and Lahore.

The changes conform to the trait noticed in army chief Raheel Shareef's last set of promotions in April this year: That of sending out newly promoted lieutenants general to important corps commands.

Aamer Riaz, who acquired a good reputation as the director general of military operations, goes to the sensitive XII Corps Command in Quetta, Baluchistan. He will be dealing with the militancy connected to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban, and also the simmering Baloch nationalist struggle.

Interestingly enough, as a brigadier in Peshawar, Aamer Riaz had earned the ire of Americans as he demurred on various operational matters pertaining to the Af-Pak arena.

At one point, US General David Petraeus had complained to then army chief (Ashfaq Parvez) Kayani about him, following which General Kayani moved him out of Peshawar to the crucial 111 Brigade command in Rawalpindi (which has traditionally held the key to tank movements in previous coups in Pakistan). Aamer Riaz has obviously lived down that 'disqualification.'

Umar Farooq Durrani, an armoured corps officer, goes as general officer commanding I Corps, Mangla. He had already served in an armoured division there. He replaces Lieutenant General Mian Muhammad Hilal Hussain, who was sent to Mangla as the general commanding officer only in April this year.

An artillery officer, Lieutenant General Hilal has had a short stint at Mangla; but has been shifted to the prestigious Strategic Forces Command. In a way, this is a setting right of old army conventions: That of an armoured corps officer heading the Mangla attack corps, while the SFC is traditionally given to an artillery officer.

Lieutenant General Obaidullah Khan, who headed the SFC, goes as inspector general arms. Lieutenant General Sadiq Ali, also an armoured corps officer, goes as Corps Commander, IV Corps, Lahore.

The promotions now bring the inter-arm balance of 29 lieutenants general to 12 from the infantry, six from the artillery, four from the armoured corps, three from engineers, two from air defence and one each from ordnance and army medical corps.

Some other important changes can be noted in this reshuffle. Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa, a Baloch Regiment officer and last of the Kayani appointees, has been shifted from the important X Corps Command, Rawalpindi, as director general, inspectorate of training and evaluation or DG, I&ET. His place has been taken by Malik Zafar Iqbal, another Baloch regiment officer. Zafar had earlier served as head of the anti-narcotics force.

Lieutenant General Ghayur Mahmood, GOC, XXX Corps, Gujranwala, has been shifted out as chief of logistics staff at general headquarters. His place is taken by Lt Gen Ikramul Haq of the Azad Kashmir Regiment, who was DG, I& ET.

It is Asim Bajwa's elevation that comes as a surprise to his peers. His posting has not yet been announced. Apart from commanding a division in Dera Ismail Khan where his performance was not considered that great, he did not have the requisite staff or instructional experience under his belt.

However, he has been accompanying the army chief on foreign tours and may have endeared himself to the chief by tweeting overtime on developments pertaining to the Zarb-e-Azb operation against the TTP -- which may have helped build the present cult of Raheel Sharif as a very competent, decisive and popular chief.

The changes bear the Raheel Sharif stamp and complete the process of his own appointees being placed in almost all key staff and field positions. The reshuffle also places in position a younger lot of three-star generals.

The scene will now shift to the crucial retirement of the army chief himself, and of the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Rashad Mahmood. Both these changes are due in November, 2016.

Already, there is talk of a possible extension for Raheel Sharif in the context of his perceived sterling, but incomplete work in the war against terror, as also the cleansing of crime and extortion networks in Karachi.

Former president Pervez Musharraf made a statement in this regard -- though this can by no means be regarded as a floater on General Sharif's behalf. A course mate of Raheel's deceased war-hero elder brother Shabbir Sharif, Musharraf has reason to be grateful to General Sharif for having conveyed to the political leadership the army's reservations against Musharraf being tried for treason.

Others who know General Sharif better have commented in the Pakistani media that his own inclination would be not to stay on, but to retire honourably. General Kayani had been popular during his first tenure from 2007 to 2010 for having reduced the army's profile from civilian jobs. He lost this charisma in the three years of drift and indecision during his extended tenure from 2010 to 2013. Peer generals who missed out on their own chances of elevation bad-mouthed him later. General Sharif may like to avoid this fate.

In any case, it is still early days and this would be a political decision, to be taken by the prime minister. This would depend on Nawaz Sharif's reading of the collegiate army pulse, his overall political stability in the face of a reviving challenge from Imran Khan in the heartland of Punjab, and jockeying by aspirant generals.

Rana Banerji is a former special secretary, Cabinet secretariat, Government of India.

Rana Banerji in New Delhi
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