Careless whispers

Whatever the general decides, his last weeks as COAS are rife with rumour of extension

Careless whispers
Is Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif having second thoughts about his earlier decision of retiring on time—an announcement he made prematurely in January in an apparent fit of anger over what he believed was politically motivated speculation over his future?

It seems difficult, but it is certainly not improbable.

The general’s earlier announcement made through the ISPR failed to kill the speculation although it muted it for a few months. But, with D-day drawing closer, just ten to eleven weeks away now, the conjecturing has returned with a greater intensity.

The chatter has grown louder after ISPR Director-General Lt Gen. Asim Bajwa gave a rather equivocal response to a questioner at a press conference last week in which he said that the military had made its position clear on the issue of an extension in the service of the army chief and any change in it would be notified accordingly.

Prior to the press conference, the military spokesman had been batting away questions all along about the mounting speculation. He could have simply taken out the trash by stating that the general would retire on the due date. His comment instead gave a new lease of life to the speculation as he allowed the doubters to point out the possibility of change in the position. His response could have either been a case of a casual choice of words or a deliberately crafted statement to leave space for any subsequent recalibration of the position.

That aside, the latest gossip making rounds in political and military circles in Islamabad/Rawalpindi is that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has offered Gen. Sharif Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee—a largely ceremonial position in the armed forces. This followed on the heels reports about an offer to elevate Gen. Sharif to the position of Field Marshal, which somehow seemed to be wishful thinking on somebody’s part.


The reported offers, which seem to be evolving all the time—first an extension in tenure, then promotion as field marshal and now appointment as chairman joint chiefs of staff committee—may all look too absurd. But, what’s even more intriguing is that the military, which apparently is the party more affected by this lingering controversy, doesn’t appear too keen to see it end.

The onlookers are, therefore, duly entitled to wonder about the likelihood of some behind-the-scenes negotiations between the political and military leadership over the issue.

A deep insider, who closely witnessed the last transition in 2013, claims that the ruling Sharifs prefer keeping matters such as the retirement of an army chief and appointment of a successor uncertain. He recalled that the Sharifs kept making offers to former Army Chief Gen. (retd) Ashfaq Pervez Kayani till the very end, even after his unambiguous Oct 6, 2013 statement about not taking another extension.

The source believes that the Sharifs are simply following the same pattern this time as well, keeping the proverbial carrot dangling for the incumbent, while quietly scouting for the right candidate.

This approach works. The talk generated by the continued speculation over the current army chief’s future helps detractors strengthen the perceptions about generals being self-centered, opportunistic, and power hungry.

This isn’t just some wild assumption. PML-N leaders are often heard in private discussions peddling stories that the current bad patch in civil-military relations can be blamed on the army chief wanting an extension, while the government is not inclined to giving him one.

But, the Sharifs, some others say, are genuinely interested in granting the army chief an extension.

The assumptions are: First, Gen. Raheel Sharif would be a weaker army chief in an extended tenure. He would be beholden to the prime minister for the favour and would face resentment from senior generals, who could have been fancying they had a chance of becoming army chief—Lt Gen. Zubair Hayat, Lt Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, Lt Gen. Javed Iqbal Ramday and Lt Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. An army chief on an extension would have to contend with most of them for a little less than a year. Secondly, another year for Gen. Sharif would change the pecking order and bring Corps Commander Karachi Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar—a distant PM Sharif relative—into the race.

Looking at this from Gen. Sharif’s perspective, one wonders if there are any reasons for him to stay on. There are, rather, all the reasons for him not to.

Undoubtedly, he is popular because of successfully fighting terrorism, but that is hardly a justification for an extension. The fight against terrorism was an untertaking by the entire military. Gen. Sharif did lead from the front in the fight, but others contributed in equally important ways. Lest one forgets, Gen. Musharraf and Gen. Kayani both also got carried away by this illusion of being popular and were soon discredited both within the army and in the public’s eye.

Why then, would Gen. Sharif accept the extension bait?

Whether or not he will stay or go remains to be seen. But given the current state of affairs, retiring on time may be yet another ‘correct decision’ Gen. Sharif has to make.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at and @bokhari_mr