After keeping Pakistan agog for months, Raheel Sharif finally walked away last week, handing the baton to General Qamar Javed Bajwa as the new army chief.
Was the transition – the first on schedule in two decades – as smooth behind the scenes as it appeared?
If the now-retired General took his own decision to go by the book, does this signal a change within the single most organised entity in the country – the military?
If not, is it the prime minister, who has regained a crucial upper hand for under-the-weather civilians by standing his ground and denying an extension to the powerful former khaki chief?
All these are critical questions in the context of the civil-military relations as Pakistan moves to augment its eight-year-old democratic transition.
Insiders suggest there may have been a gnawing bout from the security establishment to get an extension for the army chief given his significant contribution in Pakistan’s existential war-on-terror, but that a wary Nawaz Sharif was unwilling to go down the beaten path after largely having walked in the former General’s shadows for much of his three-year-term.
General Sharif could easily be counted as the most popular army chief in the country’s history for his no-nonsense, action-oriented approach, but it also fuelled unease amongst the political class – predominantly, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), its predecessor, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the Karachi-based ethnic Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) – all of whom wanted to see the back of him.
Save for perhaps, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) of firebrand opposition leader Imran Khan, they felt the heat of Raheel Sharif’s actions in an expanding clean-up operation aimed at breaking the nexus of political corruption and terrorism. While Sharif successfully averted the launching of an operation in his Punjab province, the PPP struggled in Sindh, where Dr Asim Hussain, a confidante of Asif Zardari, the party’s leader and former president, continues to be in custody for alleged corruption and terrorist link.
The MQM, on the other hand, lies battered after its once revered leader, Altaf Hussain, launched a stunning verbal assault against the state last August that served as an own goal after the Rangers had been given the green light for a crackdown.
Despite the civilian Sharif’s numerous attempts to loosen his khaki namesake’s grip on Karachi to placate the PPP, both had to wait him out eventually. PPP’s Zardari, who fled abroad after a blistering attack on the army once he realised the consequences of his reckless action last year, is now returning home and has already made a courtesy call to the new army chief!
But the picture, below,  of Prime Minister Sharif in his strategically positioned chair having a word with Raheel’s successor Bajwa during the latter’s call-on with the PM offers a stunning story per se. A whole generation of Pakistanis have grown accustomed to – some might suggest, resigned to – the army calling the shots with the civilian chief executive not really being able to execute his authority in letter and spirit.
Massively symbolic as it is, only time will tell how strong is the apparent “paradigm” shift portrayed in the image released by the PM House. But Prime Minister Sharif can be justifiably credited for outlasting six army chiefs, including two handpicked ones, despite two previous aborted terms – one of which even saw him forced into a long exile!
Given the chequered history, the civilian Sharif may have gambled in denying his khaki namesake an extension – regardless of whether the General sought it or not after announcing earlier in the year that he wouldn’t – and then picking a candidate to replace him who, at best, remained only a dark horse in a four-man race!
General Bajwa has already shown a bit of nous by persuading the two seniors whom he had superseded to stay on – against tradition where those passed over usually sulk and retire early. The senior most was already elevated to the largely ceremonial slot of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.
Bajwa’s selection is rather interesting, not in the least for his known aversion to interference in political matters and a general dislike of the limelight – apparently, just the package that suits Prime Minister Sharif, whose Achilles’ heel as it were has been his uneasy relationship with nearly all the army chiefs he has had to contend with in power, including his own appointed ones.
Bajwa, who has commanded 10 Corps, which is responsible for the most sensitive areas of the country, including almost the entire border with India, has even won praise from the former Indian army chief for his professional acumen (both of them worked in Congo under a UN mission).
The entire defence installations, including the army, navy and air force headquarters, as well as the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, also fall under the jurisdiction of the Commander of 10 Corps.
These are just two of a long list of Bajwa’s stellar career bullet points, but he is also an avid reader and has a keen interest in international relations and current affairs. It would be certainly interesting to see how he approaches the two ongoing but challenging assignments from a security perspective: India and Afghanistan.
While consolidating the gains of General Raheel Sharif’s counter-terror efforts must remain the priority of his successor along with the swift rehabilitation of IDPs in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas up north following the longest ever anti-terror military operation, the first point of interest at home will hover on the civil-military relationship.
While the imbalance has often created an unwanted chasm in the past, the expectation around this time is that Bajwa’s strong professional mien will provide decent space for the political class to strengthen the roots of democracy.
Paradoxically, now that he is in the hot seat, it will also fall upon Bajwa’s shoulders to ensure that the country’s often bickering political parties do not have a field day queering the pitch come the 2018 general elections. Historically, the army is called out to keep a steady watch on any prospective hanky-panky.
Last but not least, the democratic forces would like to see General Bajwa stick to his known credentials of non-interference and perhaps, even resist the temptation to Twitterise any reaction to developments that often led to needless controversies during his predecessor’s time.
In a nutshell, keeping an orderly house – firmly in step with the civilian chief executive’s fiat – should be the favoured national ideal.

* The writer is Community Editor.

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