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- Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - From Print Edition

It’s almost official. By October or November, Pakistan’s military at large, and then its army in particular, are going to have new commanders.

First, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee is going to get a new chairman. The probable is Lt-Gen Haroon Aslam and, by fall, he will be the 15th Four-Star (and the 12th general) to assume what is essentially a ceremonial role in an organisation that is toothless but potentially – if it ever dares to change itself – a key platform for the future of war in Pakistan.

By the way, the chairman of the JCSC is supposed to be the highest-ranking military official in the country. So it’s only fitting that Haroon, the senior-most ‘survivor’ in khaki after the retirement axe falls collectively on the four top generals ahead of him this autumn, is chosen for this top slot. However, in Pakistan’s power structures, there are a lot of rules that are supposed to be but that are never meant to be for real. Case in point: the CJCSC ‘top slot’ is going to be fancy reward for Haroon, but not a particularly useful one, because the real prize – chief of army staff – seems to be going elsewhere.

How’s this possible? How does the senior-most man in the structure get a ceremonial job? It’s the tragedy of the matrix, really.

Haroon comes in line after Pakistan’s most famous chain-smoker, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who is followed by the fail-safe General Khalid Shamim Wynne (the current CJCSC, who – technically but not practically – outranks Kayani), the dapper and extroverted Lt General Khalid Nawaz (of the country’s largest and politically powerful X Corps in Chaklala) and the almost cherubic but very academic ‘Pakhtunist’, Lt General Alam Khattak (of the strategically pivotal Southern Command, headquartered in Quetta). This gang of the top four will go golfing this autumn.

In effect, Haroon’s appointment in Wynne’s stead will not be a controversial affair as his seniority will make him the perfect fit for what is – but again, only on paper – the top military job in the land. He has commanded an ostensibly important formation, operations-wise, in Bahawalpur’s XXXI Corps; he’s done the paramilitary bit as the DG of Punjab Rangers; he’s been general officer commanding of the Special Service Group during key operations (yes, he is one of those lead-from-the-front commandos who jumps off helicopters); he’s served as a director in the elite Military Operations Directorate; he’s completed a foreign war course which, in the army, sets apart the haves from the have-nots; he’s served as an administrative top gun as chief of staff of another corps as a brigadier; and he’s an infantryman, making him a representative of the largest arm of the army, the infantry, where he represents the post-’71 Azad Kashmir Regiment (but not the older, more prestigious battalions). And surprise, surprise: he’s a Punjabi.

But as he currently serves as a principal staff officer to Kayani, Haroon wears the rather unspectacular ultra-coordinator’s hat as the chief of logistics staff (CLS): Though not the most glamorous of the GHQ’s powerful PSO desk jobs, the role makes him perfect for the drag CJCSC office which, essentially, is that of a glorified commissar who coordinates between the three services – army, navy and air force.

That means a lot of photo-ops, a lot of foreign trips, no operational control, but also much required inter-service synchronisation, maybe even harmonisation, between the dominant khakis and the relatively puny whites and blues. And what better way to keep the sailors and aviators in check than sending in a burly, bespectacled, cane-wielding commando, with 200 pounds and over 50 jumps on his ‘red wings’ to ‘coordinate’ between the three services at the very classy and colonial, but still rather single-storey, Joint Staff Secretariat.

Thus, Haroon’s is the classic case of an honourable send-off: as a one and two-star, he was a star. But consolatory desk jobs (like a stint as chairman of the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority), the current CLS gig (which was a post lying vacant for bit, waiting for him as he got his commander’s notch at XXXI Corps), and the nominal command of Bahawalpur (it’s no Lahore, Karachi or even a strike formation) indicate that his grooming has been carefully managed by the chief’s secretariat to be good – but not good enough.

The bottom-line, then, on why the actual number one in the army will get the not-actually-number-one job in the tri-services military combine is simple, but a masterstroke by Kayani: Haroon as CJCSC will be good for army morale (even a ‘grunt commando’ from a non-pedigree regiment can rise to the top, without superseding anyone); he will be a blunt, by-the-book answer for the recently elected purveyors of rules and regulations (the ‘top general must get the top job’, as PM Nawaz Sharif and his waistcoated boys insist), and he will carry on with the army’s control of even the marginally empowered triad of the joint chiefs (where, let’s be honest, he will be better qualified than anyone the air force or the navy can churn out, only because his recent, though clerical, staff posts as well as his special forces focus qualify him for where the joint service operations are headed). More importantly, the army will look like it follows the rules, ‘sacrificing’ its senior-most warrior to the beast of official protocol: That last bit is key.

But, even more importantly, in a country made for blue-eyed boys, Haroon’s appointment in October will clear the way in November for a man who will take direct control of the fifth largest fighting force in the world. This will probably be an officer known as Lt-Gen Rashad Mahmood. Spelt differently from ‘Rashid’, though pronounced as such, Rashad will be the eighth chief of army staff (before General Tikka Khan, the COAS was called the commander-in-chief, which was too grand a title for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto not to change) and the 15th general to command the Pakistan Army.

Frankly, Rashad as the 15th chief is much more interesting than Haroon as the 15th chairman. On the seniority list, Rashad comes in seamlessly after Haroon, and will move in as seamlessly into Army House. Why? Because, for now, he seems to be the epitome of the army’s command and staff matrix, and his boss has done a remarkable job of grooming him as an heir-apparent. But first, some background on how the chief’s matrix works, and how the cards are stacked to prepare grounds for the most powerful job in Pakistan.

Long before the May elections, General Kayani pulled a knight’s move by pre-empting debate and combat with any elected government over the future leadership of the army by grooming and promoting (even retiring) different types of brass for different types of roles. The four autumn retirees (listed above) notwithstanding, the race had boiled down to five by earlier this year. The commando, Lt-Gen Haroon Aslam at number one; the contender, Lt-Gen Rashad Mahmood, at number two; the legatee, Lt-Gen Raheel Sharif, at number three; the soldier’s soldier, Lt-Gen Tariq Khan, at number four. And the spook, Lt-Gen Zahir-ul-Islam, at number five.

The chief’s secretariat’s options were limited, but Kayani’s choices were further complicated by challenges that no mere military secretary could help him solve. How would he manoeuvre any elected PM into making a by-the-book decision that would also feature his own choice? How would he ensure that his constituency, the army itself, would remain impressed with such a choice, and its codes – written and unwritten – would be followed?

And, as importantly, how would he keep the Americans relaxed and other ‘patrons’ satisfied? The die was cast long ago by Kayani as far back as 2010/11; and its colour was khaki.

To be continued

The writer, a Harvard Kennedy School Fellow, is a multimedia journalist. He tweets @wajskhan.

Email: [email protected]