Of Chiefs – Taj M Khatak

Nawaz Sharif, in selection of the incumbent chief of the army staff, has once again fallen for instincts of personal preferences as opposed to the choices thrown up by institutional process. True, seniority is not a Quranic injunction but it is given due weightage universally and ignored only when the senior man happens to be of an infirm mind or flawed character.

The current decision may well be in accordance with the letter of the constitution but does not quite resonate with its spirit, since no man has the right to strike down another man with a stroke of a pen without a valid reason just because he has the discretion to do so.

But now the decision has been made and General Sharif has just begun the journey of leading the army for the next three years. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, harsh as it may seem, is believed by his detractors to have the potential of a driver who collides with a tree on a deserted track, even if that happens to be the only tree in sight.

Let’s hope that at some time in the future, not in our lifetime it would appear, the appointment of the army chief in Pakistan is a speculation-free affair and one in deference to the institutional process. There are many countries that have achieved this. There are some kinks as to why it is not being done in Pakistan but these difficulties are not insurmountable if only there is a will to streamline the process.

More significantly, the common thread running in Nawaz Sharif’s past experiences with the military has been that of an uninspiring impression of his interactions. It goes back to the efforts of the family patriarch, late Mian Muhammad Sharif, to adopt General Asif Nawaz Janjua as his third son through expensive gifts, as reported in a section of the media at the time. After those unsuccessful efforts, the relationship suffered an irreparable damage and was never the same.

In General Musharaf’s tenure, those with saner minds were appalled at the naiveté of the prime minister not to see through the plan during the infamous Kargil briefing, and even participating in the prayers for the success of the operation led by the most pious-looking from amongst the gang of four. The vibes emanating from his recent visit to GHQ, despite years having passed since Kargil, are no different. In fact the disappointment at the lack of prime ministerial understanding of threat perceptions and grasp over security issues is far deeper – public postures notwithstanding.

In the broader context, not placing faith in the larger polity of the military institution is not good for the country nor helpful for democracy. Neither of the two stands to gain anything if the rulers continue to trust individuals for personal loyalty as opposed to strengthening institutions in support of the state. In the same vein, an occasional divergent view by the military on issues of national importance should be taken in a stride and as a sign of maturity and not considered to be a challenge to the political authority.

The rulers and the media need not get rattled over ISPR statements which, understandably, should be the rarest phenomenon, but should be taken a note of if there are good enough reasons to go public against the preferred mode of private discussions.

If the selection of the new COAS is influenced by government’s fears about less enthusiastic support from the military for talks with Taliban then one can only laugh at the whole thought process.

I am tempted to digress a little to my childhood when, as school boys, whenever we wanted some relief from the strict British discipline of the boarding house, we would pine for our geography teacher in the faculty who was the kindest and naturally most loved of them all. One or the other from among us would pretend not to understand why the earth is round and the rest would join in.

When he would unsuccessfully exhaust his arguments, he would say in his chaste Urdu, ‘Jee karta hay pehley tumhara sir phor loon aur phir apna’. (I feel like first banging your head against the wall and then my own). ‘But please sir, why your head?’ Someone would plead. That is when he would utter what we would all be waiting for…‘Bhai apna iss liye kay itni see baat samja na saka aur thumara iss liay kay tum itni se baat samaj nahin sakey’ (My own head because I couldn’t make you understand and yours because you couldn’t understand you this simple fact).

Far be it for us to wish any bodily harm to the prime minister and or Imran Khan, but these two gentlemen must understand that as long as the Taliban retain the advantages of: a) delivering suicide bombers on a conveyor belt, as it were; b) using IEDs and blowing up anyone with enviable precision; and c) imposing an unacceptable human cost on any effort to penetrate their stronghold in North Waziristan, there is little to achieve from the talks even if the other side agree to the proposal.

Time and again our leaders dream of miracles on the negotiating table where efforts in the field have failed; Siachen is another example if one is needed.