That Fateful Appointment Soon To Come: A Letter To The Prime Minister

That Fateful Appointment Soon To Come: A Letter To The Prime Minister
Dear Prime Minister, in the not-too-distant future you have to take a momentous decision: the toughest that any Pakistani prime minister makes in their innings. The selection of the next army chief (COAS) should be a normal appointment, but our chequered history proves otherwise. Several of your predecessors have come to grief by – or severely regretted – the decision they took in selecting the COAS. Therefore, it would not be inapt to say that the appointment of the “right” army chief is a Gordian knot that no prime minister has satisfactorily solved to date.

In my view, you should simply make the appointment of the next COAS on the seniority principle. This is the fair and equitable thing to do, since all of the top four or five contenders are men of generally equal competence, experience and merit. When there is little to differentiate between them on purely professional counts, then the seniority principle should become the deciding factor. This will make the appointment a routine administrative matter, as it should be, rather than a task akin to ascending Mount Olympus, as it has become over the past many decades.

Allow me to give you an historical insight into the appointments of some previous army chiefs, and hopefully this refresher will help put things in the right perspective for you when it comes to making your pick.

Arguably, your most intelligent and shrewdest predecessor was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In his five-and-a-half years in power, he appointed three army chiefs. The first, Lt. General Gul Hasan, was appointed Commander-in-Chief by superseding his senior, Lt. General Tikka Khan. In less than three months, Bhutto regretted his choice and he unceremoniously sacked Gul on the grounds of what he called signs of ‘Bonapartism.’ The second army chief appointed by Bhutto was General Tikka Khan, who became the first chief to being given the title of COAS, and who also had the dubious honour of being the first superseded officer to be given command of the Pakistan Army. In Pakistan’s history, Tikka Khan has gone done as the most loyal and apolitical army chief to serve under a civilian prime minister.

Lt. General Gul Hasan Khan, Commander-in-Chief 1971-1972

So, having got one appointment right by adhering to the seniority principle (Tikka) and one appointment wrong by breaching the seniority ranking (Gul), Bhutto then made his most fateful appointment. Out of eight eligible lieutenant generals, he selected the junior-most, Lt General Zia-ul-Haq, to replace Tikka Khan as COAS in March 1976. This decision marked a total demolition of the army’s seniority list. Bhutto significantly wasted the talent pool of the army, since two of the superseded generals, Mohammed Akbar Khan and Majeed Malik, immediately chose to retire rather than serve under their junior while another, Aftab Ahmed Khan, opted for retirement after a short delay. Bhutto also inexplicably disregarded the advice of the faithful Tikka Khan, who had recommended Akbar Khan or Mohammed Shariff for the job. The well-respected Shariff, who was considered professionally sound and an apolitical soldier, was kicked upstairs to the newly-created largely ceremonial role of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJSC).
The one clear appointment made in accordance with the seniority principle was that of Tikka Khan, and whatever else may have been his faults, at least he did not challenge the civilian head of government, leave alone intervene in politics or aspire to take-over the government

It is well-known how Zia repaid Bhutto for the favour done to him and the nation still bears the scars of the bitter legacy that he left behind after presiding over the lengthiest bout of unfettered military rule. But perhaps none of this would have come to pass had Bhutto not turned the seniority rule on its head and appointed a junior officer as the COAS. Food for thought, Prime Minister?

Another example which should drive the point home in a very personal way for you is the not too edifying record of your brother, Nawaz Sharif, who directly appointed three army chiefs and who was part of the appointment process of another two chiefs. In 1991, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, with the affirmative vote of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, appointed the senior-most lieutenant general, Shamim Alam Khan, as the CJSC, while the second in line, Asif Nawaz, was made COAS. Technically, it was the former’s right to have been appointed COAS, particularly when he was considered professionally able and competent, but yet again the seniority principle was not upheld.

Relations between Nawaz Sharif and General Asif Nawaz remained strained, and it was only the untimely death of the latter which prevented a show-down from taking place between them. Acting COAS Lt General Mohammed Ashraf was preferred by the prime minister as the next army chief, but the president demurred. A deadlock persisted between the Aiwan-e-Sadr and the PM House over the chief’s appointment, before the president exercised his discretionary powers and appointed the fifth most senior lieutenant general, Abdul Waheed Kakar, to head the army. Again the seniority principle was violated in Kakar’s appointment, and within months both Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Nawaz Sharif had lost their jobs as a result of what is called the “Kakar Formula.”

General Tikka Khan, COAS 1972 - 1976

In 1998, Nawaz Sharif, then an all-powerful prime minister, appointed Lt General Pervez Musharraf as the COAS. In doing so he superseded two senior generals, Ali Quli Khattak and Khalid Nawaz, both of whom were considered professionally more able than their junior, and neither’s career had been marked by any controversy. The bitter harvest of that ill-fated appointment was soon reaped by Nawaz Sharif, as well as by the country, which thereby endured its fourth bout of military rule.

Then we come to the final two persons appointed army chief by Nawaz Sharif, namely Generals Raheel Sharif and Qamar Javed Bajwa. Again, on both these occasions, the seniority principle was given short shrift. Raheel Sharif was number three on the seniority list and Qamar Javed Bajwa was number four in the rankings. Did Nawaz Sharif gain anything by promoting either of these two gentlemen to become army chief over the heads of their seniors? The answer is painfully clear!

All in all, the record plainly shows that no prime minister ever benefited by appointing an army chief out of turn. The one clear appointment made in accordance with the seniority principle was that of Tikka Khan, and whatever else may have been his faults, at least he did not challenge the civilian head of government, leave alone intervene in politics or aspire to take-over the government.

Lt General Asif Nawaz, COAS 1991 - 1993

Therefore, Prime Minister, nothing is to be gained by making analyses of the character traits of the various lieutenant generals and scrutinizing their pro-democracy proclivities and predilections for civilian supremacy. The exercise has been done many times in the case of previous appointments and never has it achieved any purpose. Bhutto thought that Zia-ul-Haq was the epitome of loyalty and humility, but history taught him a bitter lesson. Similarly, Nawaz Sharif thought that Qamar Javed Bajwa was the most pro-democracy lieutenant general, but he drastically revised his view after his ouster as prime minister in 2017 – although in recent months he may now have re-revised his views!

All you need to do is to simply let seniority take its course. This will make your life easier, and it will end the feverish speculation and sinister gossip that is going around in the country in relation to the impending appointment. So, please do the right thing for the right reasons and set a healthy tradition by appointing the senior-most lieutenant general as the next COAS!


Postscript: In case you are presented with a proposal to extend, for the second time, the tenure of the incumbent COAS, you should take stock of an historical fact. Mohammed Ayub Khan was the only other army chief in Pakistan’s history who was given two extensions by civilian governments, in 1955 and 1958. What followed on 7th - 8th October 1958 does not need repeating!

The writer is a barrister with over twenty years of varied legal practice in Pakistan, UAE and Australia. He is currently an entrepreneur and the co-founder/operator of an online home-based confectionery business. The history and politics of Pakistan is his abiding passion. He can be reached at