The new chief | Talat Hussain


Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has to do many things to deal with a tough domestic and regional situation, but few are as important as his decision on the appointment of the new army chief. While he has chosen to keep mum on that score, there are strong reasons to argue that he should speak his mind and decide not just on time but immediately as to who is the next man leading one of the world’s strongest, nuclear-ready armies.

The conventional wisdom on the appointment of the next man in is to wait till the final moment and let the one at the helm of affairs to spend his last days in the prestigious office with full focus. Also it is pure courtesy that the outgoing man be treated well and not given the sense that his departure is desperately awaited. In case of General Raheel Sharif there are added reasons for a polite and civilised send-off. He has developed a stature and profile that requires a suitable culmination.

However, circumstances are such that niceties need to be curtailed and decisions made about his successor. This can be done by extending the warmest of farewells to General Sharif and without taking anything away from what is his due. What advantages does the country reap from a six-week early breaking of news about the next army chief? There are many.

Consider this. Pakistan is facing a long-term Fabian strategy by its arch-enemy, India. Signs are legion that Delhi is preparing for enduring hostility. Its diatribe against Pakistan is steady. It has announced plans to seal the international border with us and has amassed extra forces on the Line of Control. Media nationalism is at its peak and, other than the business-driven interests of investors, there aren’t any significant voices even from the so-called doves in the entertainment industry to preach sanity to Modi.

So the three critical elements – military resource, policy statement and public sentiment – are all in alignment within an international environment that India is making a constant effort to shape against Islamabad. Its encirclement plans also include regional alliances that are bankrolled by Delhi on the condition that they would make Pakistan look like the villain of the piece at all international forums. Washington is absolutely on board on all of this; in fact there is reason to believe that elements within the US have encouraged India to pursue the policy of inflicting a few cuts on Pakistan.

This multilayered hostile situation demands detailed response. It requires spreading the maps of Pakistan’s vulnerabilities on a vast table and doing a thorough debate on the way forward. This also involves working out a deep and well-directed consensus with the entire mainstream political leadership about the years to follow. One or two National Security Committee meetings are exercises in emergency response. These do not draw up a strategic road-map.

Indian moves are expansionist. Its designs are determined by its core desire to whittle Pakistan down. LoC crossfire is just the tip of the iceberg of a cold war that is here to stay in South Asia for years to come.

Clearly, an army chief who is barely two months away from his retirement cannot, even with the best of intentions and planning, create a military doctrinal framework to deal with India’s new aggressive stratagems. He has no time to carry out internal war-gaming on possible scenarios that this new situation has the potential of creating. The more so since the recent spurt of Indian warmongering is not just unprecedented in scale but also unique in its declared intent to support, promote and cause Pakistan’s fragmentation along sectarian and regional lines.

Earlier India used to plan. Now it is executing these plans. This has made it essential to revise some of our standard assumptions about Delhi’s capacity and its commitment to sustaining jingoism against Islamabad.

A new chief announced at this juncture will set the ball rolling for military planning and coordination with the civilian leadership for years ahead. It will end this now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t environment and get everyone to focus on the real tasks. The longer the issue of the next man in lingers on, the more precious time is wasted in useless pursuits and speculation. In this sense, Pakistan really needs to move on (pun unintended) with the next phase of military leadership, whose head, once decided, can then do his team selection and human resource deployment while General Raheel Sharif makes his farewell calls.

The other significant reason that makes a before-time announcement of the new army chief imminently sensible is the handing-over process and debriefings. There is a routine way such stuff is handled. Generally, the change of guard has its procedural formalities of passing the baton to the next one in line. But often the dead-end transfer of responsibilities of the office of the chief of army staff to the newcomer is hampered by the urgency of the change of command. The new man comes in. The old one goes out. There isn’t much time in-between for substantive orientation, exchange of notes and advice. This is why almost all army chiefs pretty much start anew and don’t draw on the experience of the predecessor.

Sometimes the challenge is compounded by circumstances and personality clashes. General Ziaul Haq did not have time to brief General Mirza Aslam Beg whose successor, General Asif Nawaz, came in an environment hardly conducive for a friendly and professional interface with his outgoing boss. General Pervez Musharraf wasn’t exactly fond of General Jehangir Karamat whose policies he openly criticised and belittled. He did not have a great equation with General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani, whom he almost replaced months after grudgingly appointing him as the army chief.

Similarly General Raheel Sharif is not known for his friendship with General Kayani, many of whose initiatives have been reversed or stalled in the last three years. These personal matters have historically rebelled against the process of ‘handing over’ and have deprived the institution the value of shared wisdom.

In the present situation, it is critical that this transfer of power is done on the back of detailed interaction between the outgoing and incoming chiefs. It cannot just be a handshake, a salute and a bouquet of good-wishes. It has to be a deliberate, extensive and many-phased interaction spread over the remaining weeks of General Raheel Sharif’s tenure. From Afghanistan’s peace puzzle to the CPEC, from India touching Pakistan’s nuclear threshold to Washington double-timing Islamabad, from Karachi’s seedy politics to Fata’s final settlement, from the army’s internal financial and administrative affairs to building a core consensus with the civilian leaders on counterterrorism’s next-generation plans, a million things need to be told and explained.

As an article on leadership development, quoting the example of a Relay Race, says: “It is not enough to run the race. We also pass our mission to the next generation. We must hand off the baton at the right time, and must do it well.”

Doing it well in the present context means doing it now and doing it gracefully. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will be failing in his duty to the need of the hour and of the nation if he were to keep this decision pending till the last minute. He should be open and swift about it. Announcing the decision on time is a constitutional requirement. Sounding it out to the person replacing General Sharif now is the requirement of the country’s strategic interests. By letting this selection linger on is an expensive policy Pakistan cannot afford.

The country needs to plan ahead, politically and militarily. It is confronted with a set of rough challenges. There is no time to stand on ceremony. The new chief’s nomination is the call of our times.