In the build-up to the appointment of the next army chief, all candidates appear to be evenly poised and there are no clear front-runners.

When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finally sits down to choose Gen Raheel Sharif’s successor, his decision will be guided by personal choices, political considerations, and, in a couple of cases, his own experience of working with the candidates – with a great temptation to go for someone safe, retired and serving bureaucrats and military officials told Dawn in background discussions.

Pakistan’s army chiefs through the ages

The succession would take place upon the retirement of Gen Sharif at the end of November.

This will be the fifth time that PM Sharif – who already holds a record of sorts for being the prime minister who has appointed the most army chiefs – will pick the top commander of the country’s nearly 550,000 ground troops. If his botched attempt to replace Gen Musharraf with Ziauddin Butt in 1999 is also counted, this will be the sixth time Sharif gets to choose a chief of army staff.

His earlier picks were Gen Asif Nawaz Janjua (1991), Gen Waheed Kakar (1993), Gen Pervez Musharraf (1998) and Gen Raheel Sharif (2013). Of the seven army chiefs after Gen Zia, five were handpicked by Mr Sharif.

Notwithstanding the complexities involved in choosing an army chief, the prime minister is said to have developed a special interest in the exercise. One of the few things he did soon after his election victory in May 2013 was to consult some of his close aides on who the next chief should be, even though he had then not yet taken the oath of office and a change of command was six months away.

The advice Sharif received from one of his aides on that occasion was: remember what had happened when seniority had been ignored in the past; not underestimate the power of the office of army chief; and get rid of the apna banda (our man) mindset. This advice was based on the premise that the moment any general assumes office, he is immediately overwhelmed by the appointment and loses his individuality.

Those who were involved with the succession exercise in 2013 say Sharif did heed the advice and stuck to the seniority list, appointing Gen Rashad Mehmood as Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and Gen Raheel Sharif as Chief of Army Staff. On that occasion, it was thought that Gen Haroon Aslam, the senior-most general, had been superseded, but it was subsequently learnt that then army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had advised against his elevation.

This time round, the government is yet to officially start considering candidates, but those privy to developments in the corridors of power say consultations within the government started at the beginning of this year.

Insiders recall that Gen Sharif’s unprecedented announcement from January this year – saying he would retire on time – was also prompted by some of the same behind-the-scenes political manoeuvres. This chatter also spilled over onto social media as calls in favour of and against giving the army chief an extension.

It is alleged that the more recent debate about Gen Sharif’s future – both in the media and via banners – was instigated by the same elements.

Unless something dramatic happens in the intervening period, the word in Islamabad is that Sharif may make an early announcement about the next army chief – a move that could potentially put Gen Sharif in the retirement mode in the last few months of his tenure – much like he did while appointing Gen Asif Nawaz.

Seniority list

The line-up is more or less clear. Chief of General Staff Lt Gen Zubair Hayat is the senior most followed by Multan Corps Commander Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed, Bahawalpur Corps Commander Lt Gen Javed Iqbal Ramday and Inspector General Training and Evaluation Lt Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.

There are two other generals between Gen Zubair and Gen Ishfaq – Heavy Industrial Complex Taxila Chairman Lt Gen Syed Wajid Hussain and Director General Joint Staff Lt Gen Najibullah Khan – but both are not technically qualified to be appointed army chief since they have not commanded a corps.

Lt Gen Maqsood Ahmed, who is serving as military adviser with the United Nations, is already on an extension and not eligible for promotion either.

All four generals eligible for promotion are from the 62nd Pakistan Military Academy Long Course.

This provides space to the prime minister to promote someone to fill the vacancy without shaking things up too much.

All four, however, had different career progressions.

After Gen Musharraf, all four-star generals in the army – Gen Tariq Majid, Gen Khalid Shamim Wynne, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Gen Rashad Mehmood and Gen Raheel Sharif – were from the infantry. Gen Musharraf was the last four-star general from the artillery – a trend that has been attributed to the army’s engagement with the ‘war on terrorism’.

Historically, of the last 14 four-star generals, nine had served as chief of general staff, which is the most prestigious office after the army chief, as it is the organisational lead on both intelligence and operations. This time, both Gen Zubair, the incumbent chief of general staff, and Gen Ishfaq, the previous one, are in the run for the two four-star vacancies.

Chairman joint chiefs of staff committee

The appointment of the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee – a position that will fall vacant on the same day as army chief’s – is a major complicating factor in the appointment of the next Chief of Army Staff.

Theoretically, the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee has to be the senior-most four-star officer from any of the three services – army, navy and air force. However, since the establishment of the National Command Authority, the army has staked a claim to its leadership, because it controls the key areas of nuclear command and strategic assets. The Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee is the deputy chairman of National Command Authority’s deployment committee, which is headed by the prime minister.

The position, though a ceremonial one, is in principle senior to the office of the army chief, therefore, a senior general would have to be appointed. It is generally believed that the government would not reverse the seniority order by putting a relatively junior general in the office of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.

The selection process

The process of both men’s appointment starts with the prime minister asking the General Headquarters via the defence ministry for the personal dossiers of the top six lieutenant generals.

The dossiers mention the eligibility of the candidates, but other than that, officials say, there is no formal recommendation from the outgoing army chief at that stage. The only person who can make a recommendation, as per the procedure, is the defence minister. But the incumbent, Khawaja Asif, seems to be following a hands-off policy vis-à-vis the army, and is not expected to get too involved in the process.

The prime minister subsequently holds a one-on-one consultation with the army chief on prospective candidates.

“Gen Raheel Sharif would not like to become controversial and would not like the prime minister to use his recommendation as an excuse to distort the seniority list,” a retired general commented when asked who Gen Sharif’s preference could be.

A politician believed to be close to the prime minister was of the opinion that while assessing the suitability of the candidates for promotion, Sharif would specifically take into consideration his working relationship with those who, due to official assignments, had interacted with him frequently.

In addition, the position of the candidates on political developments in the country, particularly their stance during the 2014 dharna, will also be a deciding factor. It may be recalled that some corps commanders reportedly counselled restraint when there was pressure on Gen Sharif from other generals to act during the sit-in. For this, it is said, the prime minister will be relying on intelligence reports he has been receiving.

Another consideration likely to be taken into account would be the prospective candidates’ views on foreign policy issues, particularly ties with India.

The next army chief would be required to preside over the military’s withdrawal from kinetic operations in the tribal areas. Due to its prolonged engagement with counter-militancy operations, most of the army’s infantry units have served around three rotations in militancy-hit areas. This, officers say, has caused war-weariness and begun to affect their professionalism.

The candidates

Lt Gen Zubair Hayat is from the artillery and the serving chief of general staff. As a three-star general, he was previously posted as director general of the Strategic Plans Division, which is the secretariat of the National Command Authority; and corps commander Bahawalpur. This makes him an ideal choice for the post of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, who has an almost exclusive jurisdiction over nuclear forces and assets.

It is very rare for someone posted at the Strategic Plans Division to go back to the army. Therefore, many see in his return to the General Headquarters within a year and half of his transfer to the Strategic Plans Division an ambitious rise to a four-star position.

His postings as chief of general staff and Director-General Strategic Plans Division afforded him an opportunity to work very closely with Sharif and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar.

During his tenure as a major general, he was general officer commanding Sialkot and later headed the Staff Duties Directorate, whose personnel are commonly known in the army as ‘paper tigers’. His stay at the directorate and his earlier posting as principal staff officer to the army chief brought him closer to Gen Kayani, and he is generally seen as Gen Kayani’s protégé.

However, his primary shortcoming is that he has never served in a conflict zone. Some of those who worked with him describe him as “workaholic” and a “vociferous reader”. He is also said to have a very sharp memory.

Gen Zubair is a second generation officer. His father retired as a major general, while two of his brothers are generals: Pakistan Ordnance Factories Wah Chairman Lt Gen Omar Hayat and Inter-Services Intelligence DG (Analysis) Maj Gen Ahmad Mahmood Hayat.

The other potential pick is Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed, who is considered to have had a textbook career. He is currently serving as Multan corps commander and has previously served as chief of general staff.

Gen Ishfaq’s appointment as chief of general staff was one of the first few things Gen Raheel Sharif did when he took charge as army chief, and many see him as the man behind Gen Sharif’s successes.

Gen Sharif’s claim to fame has been his successful campaign in North Waziristan, which is known as Zarb-i-Azb. But it is little known that the blueprint for the operation had been prepared by Gen Ishfaq as director general of military operations. Prime Minister Sharif had received a briefing at the General Headquarters on the plan for North Waziristan and approved it in principle in August 2013.

Gen Ishfaq also took part in the Swat operation as a major general and served in Waziristan as a brigadier.

Due to his involvement with the operations directorate, which started when he was a lieutenant colonel, several army officers say that no one understands operations better than him.

He is currently leading the mechanised corps, which is considered a major honour for an officer from infantry.

Moreover, he belongs to the Azad Kashmir Regiment. Therefore, his elevation as army chief would be a rare achievement for that smaller group within the military.

His detractors, however, say that he is very assertive and blunt. “As CGS [chief of general staff], he frequently visited PM House for meetings, where his blunt and candid views did not usually go down well with the prime minister,” a source said. He is otherwise deeply apolitical and will be difficult for the government to ignore.

To quote a young officer, his supersession may create disquiet among the ranks, because he is held in very high esteem.

Lt Gen Javed Iqbal Ramday is now leading the Bahawalpur corps and was previously president of the National Defence University in Islamabad.

He served as general officer commanding Swat during the operation there. In 2011, he was injured by sniper fire on his helicopter by militants over the mountainous part of Swat. For the next four years he was at the National Defence University, first as commandant and chief instructor, and then as president. He hails from the infantry’s Sindh Regiment.

“Lt Gen Ramday is a very capable and intellectually sound officer,” one of his former bosses remarked.

Due to his family’s political background, he is being described by some political analysts as the PML-N’s preferred choice. Public talk about his family’s political affiliations could potentially spoil his prospects.

He is reportedly also related to a former Supreme Court judge, retired Justice Khalilur Rehman Ramday.

One of his relatives, Brig Anwarul Haq Ramday, was killed in the terrorist attack on the General Headquarters in 2009.

Lt Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa is something of a dark horse in this race and someone who needs to be closely watched. Currently serving at the General Headquarters as Inspector General of Training and Evaluation – the position Gen Sharif held before becoming army chief – he has commanded the 10 Corps, the army’s largest, which is responsible for the area along the Line of Control.

Lt Gen Bajwa has extensive experience of handling affairs in Azad Kashmir and the northern areas of the country. As a major general, he led the Force Command Northern Areas. He also served in the 10 Corps as lieutenant colonel, where he was GSO.

Despite his extensive involvement with Azad Kashmir and northern areas, he is said to consider extremism a bigger threat for the country than India.

Lt Gen Bajwa has served with a UN mission in Congo as a brigade commander alongside former Indian army chief Gen Bikram Singh, who was also there as a division commander.

He has previously also remained the commandant of the Infantry School in Quetta.

His military colleagues say he is not attention-seeking and remains well-connected with his troops.

“He is extremely professional, but very easy-going and full of compassion,” an officer who had served under him said, adding that he was not protocol-minded either. Gen Bajwa is also said to be an apolitical person without any biases.

He is from the infantry’s Baloch Regiment, which has given three officers to the post of army chief – Gen Yahya Khan, Gen Aslam Beg and Gen Kayani.

This article first appeared on Dawn.