Such a transition, in most countries of the world, would not hog news headlines for months. But in Pakistan, it is a big deal, with likely repercussions in the immediate neighbourhood and beyond.
Why is it a ‘big deal’?
The army, often referred to as the “deep state” or “establishment” is Pakistan’s most influential institution. It has ruled the country for about 36 of its 75 years of existence.
It is widely accepted that no civilian government in Pakistan has survived without the blessings of the army.
Top army officials are notorious for pulling the strings behind the scenes. The opinion and suggestions of the army brass carry massive weight in framing policies, including defence and foreign.
The new army chief could set the tone for the conduct of relations with India, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and determine whether Pakistan tilts more toward China or the United States.
Why it matters domestically
The military has long been accused of manipulating the democratic process to maintain its dominance. Nineteen of Pakistan’s 30 prime ministers were elected, but not one of them completed their five year terms.
Having recently admitted to its past meddling in politics, the army has said it would no longer interfere. Whether the new chief stands by that commitment could be key to Pakistan’s democratic evolution.
The incoming army chief could potentially play a key role in lowering the political temperature as Pakistan attempts to survive an economic crisis.
His approach towards religious hardliners, who wield considerable influence in the political sphere, will also be of interest.
Why it matters for India
The role of the Pakistan army chief could be telling in India-Pakistan relations, including in the most contentious issue between the two- Kashmir.
In early 2021, Gen Bajwa had sanctioned restoration of a ceasefire agreement with India along the LoC.
Under the new Pak army chief, will the international border and LoC be quiet, or disturbed? Will infiltration of terrorists from across the border see a spurt or dip? Will Islamabad’s attempts to foment trouble in the Valley see a shift?
Will bilateral trade see an upswing?
How will India’s engagements with Afghanistan’s Taliban evolve, given Pakistan military and intelligence’s perceived influence in that country?
The new boss in Rawalpindi will be factor in most of these.
How is the Pak army chief picked?
According to Article 243(3) of the Pakistan Constitution, the president appoints the services chiefs on the recommendation of the prime minister.
The tradition is that General Headquarters sends a list of the four to five senior-most lieutenant-generals, along with their personnel files, to the Ministry of Defence, which then forwards them to the PM to pick the officer he finds best suited to the role.
The credentials of the generals are then deliberated upon either at the PMO or in the cabinet. The matter comes down to the PM’s ‘informal consultation’ with the outgoing army chief, his own perceptions and his discussions with his closest advisors.
Who could take over from Gen Bajwa?
Six names are believed to be in reckoning for suceeding Gen Bajwa: Lt-Gen Asim Munir, Lt-Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza, Lt-Gen Azhar Abbas, Lt-Gen Nauman Mehmood, Lt-Gen Faiz Hamid and Lt-Gen Mohammad Amir.
PM Sharif and Imran, both want to have their ways
The Pakistan government is seeking to amend an Act of 1952 to have greater authority over the appointment and retention of the Army chief, reports in the Pak media said earlier this week.
The planned amendment would empower the prime minister to retain an incumbent Army chief with a simple notification rather than through a complex constitutional process which also requires the President’s assent.
Imran too is not sitting idle. He had a proposal for Shehbaz Sharif, which the prime minister is learned to have rejected.
“Imran had suggested that we give him three names and he gives three names for the post of army chief and then we decide on the appointment of the new chief from those six names,” The Express Tribune quoted the Pakistan PM as saying.
“If there is a common name in both the lists, then we will agree,” Sharif said, adding, however: “I flatly refused Imran Khan’s offer by saying thank you.”
Why the world will be watching closely
Pakistan’s army chief will play a key role in dealing with potential instability and friction with Afghanistan on its western frontier.
The safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, that includes long-range missiles, have often been questioned.
Pakistan and its military have dismissed foreigners’ concerns over the command and control, and security of its nuclear weapons. Apprehensions of extremist elements infiltrating the ranks of its military and security apparatus has hardly been reassuring.
Gen Bajwa’s successor will have to reassure the world again once he assumes office. The country exiting the FATF grey list might just make things somewhat easier.
Gen Bajwa’s legacy
Appointed chief in 2016, Bajwa sought to balance ties with China and the United States. While Islamabad moved closer to Beijing, Bajwa also worked to thaw relations with Washington.
He made highly-publicised visits to Beijing and the Middle East – helping to secure financial assistance for Pakistan. He also lobbied Washington to help strike a deal with the International Monetary Fund.
He even summoned Pakistan’s top industrialists to a meeting at army headquarters to encourage them to pay more tax.
Domestically, Bajwa was accused of political meddling. Politicians said he helped Imran Khan become prime minister in 2018. In an about-turn earlier this year, Khan accused Bajwa of playing a part in his downfall.