Pakistan appoints powerful new army chief

General Qamar Javed Bajwa chosen to take over from Gen Raheel Sharif, the military leader who confronted extremists.

Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, newly-appointed chief of the Pakistani army,  attends a military exercise in Khairpur Tamiwali, Pakistan,  on November 16,2016.  Muhammad Yousuf / AP
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Islamabad // Pakistan on Saturday appointed General Qamar Javed Bajwa as its new military chief passing over the army’s favourite contenders for arguably the most powerful role in the country.

Gen Bajwa will take over from the hugely popular Gen Raheel Sharif, who won the hearts of millions with his bruising campaign against extremist militants.

“President Mamnoon Hussain, on the advice of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, promoted Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa to the rank of full general and appointed him as the chief of the army staff,” a prime minister’s office spokesman said.

Pakistan’s military plays a huge role in national life, offering armed reassurance against India that many Pakistanis see as vital to their identity.

Gen Bajwa was chosen over the highest ranking contender, the army’s Chief of Gen Staff Lt Gen Zubair Hayat, previously responsible for the security of the country’s nuclear programme; and over Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem, commander of the strategic Multan strike corps and viewed by many analysts as favourite for the job.

“There are many considerations and not just seniority,” said analyst Imtiaz Gul. “It may be a little surprising, but not unexpected.”

Analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said Bajwa was a “compromise” pick.

The “hawks” in the military would have wanted Gen Hayat – who instead was made chairman of the joint chiefs of staff – or Lt Gen Nadeem, she said.

“So what I see is a compromise decision in which Zubair is not pushed out entirely, he’s being made chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, which is being kicked upstairs... he does not command any troops therefore it’s not where the power lies.”

As for how Gen Bajwa, who belongs to a regiment that has produced three army chiefs in the past, will lead compared to his predecessor, she cited his reputation for shunning the limelight.

“What we saw in the last three years, especially the last year and a half, was a lot of complicity. Bajwa is a good professional soldier. He will stick to his job and not advertise himself so much,” she said.

With the civilian government largely dismissed as corrupt and inefficient, the military offers a form of stability.

Gen Raheel Sharif was the figurehead behind a widely-lauded crackdown against militancy credited with pushing extremists to the margins.

Many in Pakistan were so grateful they even created the hashtag #ThankYouRaheelSharif that went viral.

Critics say rights are being rolled back in the name of defeating terror, pointing to the creation of military courts and the resumption of hangings after a six-year moratorium.

Gen Bajwa will face challenges ranging from an increasingly hostile India to the conflict in Afghanistan, growing links between homegrown militants and ISIL, and blowback from a Trump presidency.

He will also take control of the military’s uneasy relationship with the civilian government.

The military has been in charge of Pakistan for more than half of its nearly 70-year history.

Nawaz Sharif’s administration is embroiled in accusations of corruption and waste, and increasingly finds itself playing second fiddle to a military that is already seen as controlling foreign policy and defence, leading to accusations it is carrying out a “creeping coup”.

*Agence France-Presse