In Pakistan, generals do not retire – by Syed Talat Hussain

Age of extensions

The COAS has done precisely what the chief justice did in the case of his trusted comrades, which is not much different from the reasons we hear from the president and the prime minister for retaining important members of their cabinet and advisors

It is a reality check for those who thought that only journalists and social workers never call it a day. The nation is now discovering that generals too do not retire. Not on time anyway. The extension in service to generals, now four in number, by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, raises important points. Some of these points go beyond the oversimplified current debate about the merits and demerits of these decisions. While the army’s chronic detractors see this as a sign of institutional audacity, those who are in favour are busy churning out procedural and technical arguments to defend the army chief’s right to add grace years to the career of his officers.

The significance of these decisions and their implications, however, transcend the right and wrong associated with these. The first factor that makes these decisions significant is the signal this sends across to the whole institution. And it is that while all the generals wearing the same rank are equal, some are more equal than others by virtue of the posts they hold. This may be stating the obvious realities of professional life, but it does have an added importance in the context of the reform process General Kayani himself has launched in the institution he heads.

One of the fundamentals of this entire effort has been to ensure that bad traditions of the Musharraf era are firmly rooted out. Restoring merit in the order of service has been one of the many ways General Kayani has pursued to break the debilitating legacy of his predecessor who made his own rules and exceptions as he blundered along the path of absolute power. But now the decision to grant service extensions to those who otherwise would retire into blissful oblivion brings back painful memories of the times General Kayani has tried so hard to cast into the dustbin of deliberately forgotten history. The finer point about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of these extensions will be lost in the view many are likely to hold within the institution that General Kayani too favours the favourites.

These extensions are also important because they are an admission of sorts by General Kayani that in certain individuals too much investment of time and energy has been made for him to lose their vital support. Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha’s case falls in this basket. Both as head of the ISI and as director general military operations, he has been General Kayani’s most trusted comrade. His centrality to General Kayani’s scheme of things is reinforced by the rapport he has developed with his counterparts across the world’s most important capitals including, and primarily, Washington, Riyadh, London, and Beijing. A newcomer to the job would have taken time to develop this comfort level, first with the hot seat, and then with the hard tasks he would have to perform. But while these seemingly powerful arguments — captured in the oft-used term ‘continuity’ — imply supremacy of the individual over the ability of the institution to find a suitable replacement, this is not exactly the best way to inspire confidence in other members of the team or impress upon the sceptics the diversity of leadership and command qualities the institution claims it has for every tier.

Also applied elsewhere, the same reasoning (of continuity) can have severe negative ramifications. For instance, this would mean that, theoretically, General Kayani himself too should not retire for the same reason that has caused him to retain some of his commanders. He is very comfortable in his job. He is known to everyone across the world. He is spearheading the entire breadth of operations against the militants. He has seen through turbulent political times and has not done badly in careening through these crises. Why should he retire on time? Why not extend his tenure by a year? Why not three years even? Or ten? You see how the logic of extension-for-continuity can stretch into dangerous extrapolation? It also conjures up familiar images of men in uniform viewing either themselves or other members of the team they have handpicked as indispensable to performing national level duties. This violates the golden principle that institutions progress by strictly following best practices — age of retirement being one of these.

Just as important is to see how these extensions will impact the list of individuals in the queue for the post of the chief of army staff that is going to be up for grabs by the end of this year. Some analysts have suggested that no one in the grace period of his service can be considered for the post of the COAS, and that each extension is ‘event- or task-specific’. But this is just one interpretation and certainly not the final one. Given Pakistan’s peculiar political history and the present turbulent regional situation, appointment of the next COAS will be one of the most important decisions to be made in the coming months. But this particular decision lies with the much-maligned and controversial civilian leadership, and constitutionally there is little the army command can do anything about it. Once made, this decision will have to be obeyed. However, before the decision is made, the sequence of the line-up for the post of the chief becomes exceptionally important. Shuffling the seniority list on technical grounds can be one way to throw up the present chief’s choice for his own replacement.

And, finally, with these extensions, the army’s high command has followed the general trend in Pakistan where institutional heads are exercising authority in a manner that may be legally and technically sound but does not add to the image and prestige of the office they hold. The COAS has done precisely what the chief justice did in the case of his trusted comrades, which is not much different from the reasons we hear from the president and the prime minister for retaining important members of their cabinet and advisors. Pakistan, it seems, cannot move an inch without a few good souls working beyond the call of their official duty. So much for institutional governance!

The writer is a leading Pakistani journalist

Source: Daily Times



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