New Delhi: A fortnight of political and legal drama came to a coda when Mian Shehbaz Sharif replaced Imran Khan as prime minister of Pakistan last week. Sharif’s ascension marks a significant shift in Islamabad’s power dynamics — but now, all eyes are on the country’s other power centre, Rawalpindi, where another high-profile transition is slated for later this year: The appointment of a new army chief.
Speculation is rife about the successor to General Qamar Javed Bajwa, a four-star general who is due to retire as Chief of Army Staff on 29 November, 2022 after having been granted a three-year extension. Gen. Bajwa, 61, was appointed as the army chief by the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, in 2016.
The army’s influence on the national life has been all-pervasive, and this transition is being closely watched; as political scientist Stephen Cohen, an expert on South Asia, wrote in his book The Idea of Pakistan, “Time and time again, the army’s way has been Pakistan’s way.”
Gen. Bajwa’s successors
Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relations (DG-ISPR) Major General Babar Iftikhar, has already ruled out the possibility of General Bajwa seeking another extension. “Let me put this to rest. COAS is neither seeking extension nor will he accept it. He will be retiring on time on November 22,” he told reporters during a press conference earlier this month.
The question arises — who will call the shots at the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi come November?
Estimates suggest that 20 generals would have retired between Bajwa’s extension in 2019 and the end of his tenure later this year, including at least seven lieutenant generals. This means that there are very few in the army with the credentials to take over as COAS.
Among the frontrunners for the job are Lt Generals Sahir Shamshad Mirza, Azhar Abbas, Nauman Mahmood Raja and Faiz Hameed.
It is interesting to note that all of the four top contenders were promoted from Major General to Lieutenant General in 2019. Those in the know of things also point out that only three corps commanders from Peshawar have risen to the rank of a four-star general in Pakistan — General Sawar Khan, General Aslam Beg and General Ehsan ul Haq.
Lt General Sahir Shamshad Mirza
Lt General Sahir Shamshad Mirza will be the senior-most serving officer in the Pakistan Army after Bajwa’s retirement. Commander of the X Corps in Rawalpindi since September 2021, he was commissioned in 1987 into the 8th battalion of the Sind Regiment, an infantry unit.
Mirza hails from a humble background and lost his parents when he was young. He is known as a staunch institutionalist who has worked to safeguard the authority and prestige of the army.
He has served as Chief of General Staff (CGS) at GHQ from November 2019 to September 2021 and Director General Military Operations (DGMO) from September 2015 to October 2018. He has also commanded divisions in Dera Ismail Khan and Okara in Punjab.
Owing to his seniority within the Pakistan Army, many believe Lt Gen. Mirza could take over as either the COAS or the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC); the incumbent CJCSC, Nadeem Raza, also retires in November 2022.
After Gen. Bajwa’s controversial tenure, epitomised by his fallout with Imran Khan, reports suggest that an uncontroversial loyalist may just be what the army is looking for.
However, sources told ThePrint that seniority is not the only factor that matters in the appointment of an army chief, and political considerations are likely to play a critical role.
Lt General Azhar Abbas
Lt General Azhar Abbas is currently serving as Chief of General Staff (CGS) at the GHQ. Commissioned into the 41st battalion of the Baloch regiment — the same regiment as Gen. Bajwa — he has previously served as commandant of the infantry school in Quetta. He was also personal secretary to General Raheel Sharif, who was army chief from November 2013 to November 2016.
Lt Gen. Abbas has commanded the 12 Infantry Division in Murree and served as a brigadier in the Operations Directorate, in addition to a stint as director-general of the Joint Staff Headquarters.
He was commander of the X Corps from September 2019 to September 2021. This is seen as a key division of the army since it is responsible for security along the Line Of Control (LoC) with India.
It was Lt Gen. Mirza who replaced Lt Gen. Abbas as commander of the X Corps in September 2021.
As is the career trajectory of top generals in Pakistan Army, an officer usually serves as commander of a corps, Chief of General Staff at GHQ and Director General Military Operations before being appointed the Chief of Army Staff.
Both Lt Gen. Mirza and Lt Gen. Abbas tick these boxes.
However, sources pointed out that a Shia Muslim has not served as the COAS in a long time, alluding that this could act as a deterrent to Lt Gen. Abbas’s appointment to the top job.
Lt General Nauman Mehmood Raja
Lt General Nauman Mehmood Raja has been serving as president of the National Defence University (NDU) since November 2021.
Originally from Adhwal village in Rawalpindi, he was commissioned into an infantry battalion of the Baloch Regiment in 1987. Lt Gen. Raja has served as corps commander in Peshawar, Director-General of Analysis at Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Inspector General (IG) for Communication and Information Technology at the GHQ.
He was also the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of an infantry division in Miranshah.
Sources told ThePrint that while it may appear that Lt Gen. Raja has been “sidelined” due to his current posting at the NDU, one cannot rule him out as Pakistan’s next army chief.
Lt General Faiz Hameed
Lt General Faiz Hameed, currently serving as Commander of the XI Corps in Peshawar, was DG of the ISI from June 2019 to October 2021. Hameed, who is also from the Baloch Regiment, hails from Latifal village in Chakwal district in Pakistan’s Punjab.
He was given charge of the XI Corps in October 2021, following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Speculation is rife that the then ISI chief Lt Gen. Hameed was given charge of the XI Corps to pave the way for his appointment as army chief.
Lt Gen. Hameed has also served as DG of internal security in the ISI and commanded the 16th infantry division in Pannu Aqil in Sindh when he was a major general.
His personal equation with General Bajwa goes back many years. As a brigadier, Lt Gen. Hameed served as chief of staff to General Bajwa, who was a field command officer with the X Corps in Rawalpindi at the time.
While many speculated in 2019 that General Bajwa’s extension would improve Lt Gen. Hameed’s chances of taking over as COAS, the recent political turmoil in Pakistan may have upset such calculations.
PM to take final call in November
Pakistan’s Constitution empowers the Prime Minister to appoint the Chief of Army Staff.
While these four senior officers are being seen as plausible contenders, sources told ThePrint that the final decision will rest with PM Shehbaz Sharif. A situation may also arise that elections are called and Sharif is declared the caretaker prime minister at the time of General Bajwa’s retirement.
However, three factors will ultimately shape the influence of the decision-maker — the consensus candidate proposed by serving generals, General Bajwa’s recommendation, and the seniority principle.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)