The matter of extension - Taj M Khattak - Wednesday, July 21, 2010

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According to media reports, the government has all but decided to grant two years' extension in service to army chief of staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, ostensibly for continuity of policies in view of the regional security situation.

Extensions in the armed forces or the civil bureaucracy are undesirable for a variety of reasons. There must be few instances where an extension worked to the advantage of the system or the individual.

A view against an extension in the service of Gen Kayani does not mean that one is being critical to him as a person. There is no doubt that in little over two years he has restored the army's image.

Gen Kayani's positives have been mentioned so many times they hardly need repetition. One deserving particular mention is that it is perhaps for the first time that the relationship between the government in Islamabad and the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi is not a cause for national concern, and that is a big achievement

But there comes a time when national interest demands a country's looking beyond individuals to further the interests of national institutions, including the army.

As it happens in most countries, an army chief should be selected every three years as a matter of routine and without this becoming an issue of too much speculation in the media or among the public.

In routine selections, the government of the day could be seen as reposing greater confidence in the overall institutional strength of the army, rather than in the qualities of individual commanders.

If "continuity" is indeed the real reason for the planned extension, and not just a spin, then it is tacit admission that our present system of changing the military chiefs does not take the former aspect, the more important one, into account, and continuation of policies suffers with every change.

This is undesirable since the country's armed forces are very expensive organisations and their core policies and structural roles should stay the course, regardless of change of chiefs of staff. For genuine pursuit of continuity, we would do well to look at the system in India, where the senior-most lieutenant general is invariably appointed chief of the army staff.

There is no dearth of competent individuals in Pakistan. Regular periodic selections will throw up potential for military leadership and they should be encouraged. A practice so conducted a few times with continuity will produce a positive change in the outlook of the army on the political system. Conversely, the attitude of the political class and civil society will change towards the army.

The strength of any country's armed forces is essential for the outreach of its foreign policy. Not many countries can hope to pursue a meaningful foreign relations exercise unless the governments enjoy the support of the armed forces.

But this support means the armed forces' effective backing for the government's foreign policies. It does not mean their overbearing' involvement in foreign-policy and security matters, as has been the norm in Pakistan.

The eventual move of the GHQ away from an apparent monitoring role to a supportive one in terms of foreign policy should be an objective towards which every step should matter. Regulated changes of tenure of the military's top brass could help in its own way.

Showing preference for individuals rather than reposing confidence and faith in the institution of the army as a whole is not the right approach.

Once an army officer has risen to a three-star rank, commanded a corps-level force, served as principal staff officer at the General Headquarters, and happens to be amongst the three senior-most general officers, he is as good as any to be chief of the army staff.

Anyone who has come in contact with the army will most probably support the view that it is an excellent body of officers and men. It is unfortunate that it was always a few men at the top who played havoc with the army's image, for which the entire force had to bear the consequences.

And it is important to remember that such men in the leadership role were selected out-of-turn by ruling politicians for self-serving ends. Once the military camel had its neck inside the tent, there was obviously no place for the civilian occupant.

If President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani genuinely want to dispel the impression, domestically and internationally, that democracy in Pakistan is at the pleasure of the top man in khaki, they should follow the dictates of the Constitution and affect the change in November.

While the other institutions of the country have weakened due to the long periods of military dictatorship, as well as to civil indiscretions, weaknesses have crept into armed forces in a certain manner. One such weakness is the alignment of loyalties, since every army chief theoretically has the prospects of staying longer than three years. This does not auger well for the accumulative combat resilience of the force.

Tenures beyond three years at the top can cause ethnic and other preferences which are detrimental to the effectiveness of a fighting machine. The long tenures of Zia and Musharraf can be quoted as an example in support of this argument.

Will Kayani, the intellectual and soldier, be proud of this extra time on the morning after eventual retirement when it is all over? Only he can decide that.

The writer is a retired vice-admiral and former vice-chief of the naval staff. Email: taj

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