The announcement of COAS Gen Raheel Sharif that he would not seek an extension at the expiry of his term in the later part of this year begs the question of whether it would not have been better coming from a civilian authority, preferably one involved in the process of appointing a service chief. However, the announcement’s coming through the Inter-Services Public Relations did have the advantage of credibility. If the announcement had come from the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, the Defence Ministry, or even the Presidency, it would not have been taken as final by the general public.

This reflects the position of the military in the polity. This is reflected in Pakistan’s foreign relations too. Whether it be the Indian government not accepting the civilian government’s goodwill overtures, or Saudi Arabia and Iran needing the COAS to come with the Prime Minister if the latter’s mediation efforts are to have any credibility, or the COAS’ repeated visits to Afghanistan, it seems clear that Pakistan’s interlocutors abroad need the COAS to sign off on any initiative by the civilian government if it is to have any credibility.

However, the constitutional position is that the COAS is one of the four service chiefs (the heads of the three services, and the chairman of the joint chiefs committee). He is appointed by the President, on the advice of the Prime Minister. In theory, anyone can be appointed. In practice, only the lieutenant-generals who have done both a command job as one of the corps commanders, and a staff job (as one of the Principal Staff Officers), are eligible.

As with any succession, the question of replacement is a sensitive one. The most sensitive have been those COASs who have also taken over. The very first, Gen Ayub Khan, gave up his position as Commander-in-Chief immediately, but tried to maintain a link with the Army, by promoting himself Field Marshal, a rank from which an officer never retires. (Now, through an amendment in the Army Act in the Bhutto era, a Pakistani field-marshal can be retired) His successor, Gen Yahya Khan, did not give up the post of C-in-C after becoming President, appointing a Deputy C-in-C with the rank of full general. Thus the day-to-day command of the Army in the 1971 War was exercised by Gen Abdul Hamid Khan, not Yahya.

Gen Ziaul Haq continued this tradition of remaining Army chief after taking over. He was not C-in-C but COAS, for the Bhutto government had revised the Higher Defence Organisation, converting the three service chiefs from C-in-Cs to chiefs of staff, elevating the navy and air chiefs to four-star rank equal to that of the army chief, and creating a fourth four-star post in the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee. That post was supposed to double as that of Principal Staff Officer to the Prime Minister in war time, but because he was given no powers of command over any of the services, the post became a mere sinecure. Zia converted it into a place to park army officers who did not make COAS. He remained COAS, but appointed a VCOAS with the rank of full general. It is worth noting that he did so only when a new COAS would have been appointed. One of the Bhutto reforms had been an attempt to control the Army chief by appointing the COAS first for a three-year tenure, and then extending it by a year. Zia followed this, though he gave five one-year extensions to the then Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Anwar Shamim, who retired only in 1985.

Muhammad Khan Junejo stopped the one-year extension by ruling it out for Chief of Naval Staff Adm T.K. Khan, whose three-year term expired in 1986. General Zia’s term as COAS should have ended in 1979, or in 1980 after the one-year extension, but as he (as CMLA) gave himself (as COAS) an extension ‘until further orders’, he remained in office until his death in August 1988. His replacement as President, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, appointed his then VCOAS, Gen Aslam Beg, COAS, but Ishaq revived the rotation of the CJSC slot by appointing the then CNS, Adm Iftikhar Sirohey, to it. After Sirohey, and Gen Shamim Alam Khan, CAS ACM Farooq Feroze Khan was appointed to the slot in 1994 receiving an extension first, to enable him to take over without having to retire first.

Extensions were not granted thereafter, though Mian Nawaz Sharif played around with the joint-chiefs concept by not filling the post after ACM Farooq’s retirement in 1997, leaving it was an additional charge with the COAS, first Gen Jehangir Karamat, then Gen Pervez Musharraf acted in the post, Gen Musharraf then being appointed to the post. Musharraf gave that slot to Gen Aziz Khan, but did not give up the COAS slot, only doing so in 2007, when he retired. His successor, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, was given an extension, though as it was for three years, it actually amounted to another term. General Raheel may take some solace from the fact that that was granted for much the same reason as supporters of his extension give: success in the War on Terror. Kiyani was hailed as a success quite as loudly as Raheel, though another reason given for Raheel to remain is the need for him to see through Operation Zarb-i-Azb to final victory.

It should be noted that the extension tool was first used with General Ayub, who was appointed C-in-C in 1951 for a four-year term, and then received one-year extensions till 1958, when he carried out a coup a year earlier. The prospect of a refusal of that extension was supposed to keep him under control. However, it did not. However, there has been a change. An extension is no longer a tool to stop an Army chief from taking over. That takeover may still take place. However, an extension is supposed to still be appropriate to placate the Army Chief, and to persuade him to desist from taking over.

By announcing he will not take an extension, General Raheel has managed to confirm that one was on offer. He has also made sure that a future successor, or even just conceivably himself, will accept an extension on the understanding that it was only under great pressure from the civilian authority. One thing he has managed to dispel is the impression that the extension talk was making, that the Army could not produce a successor. That was the impression created by General Kiyani’s extension, and that any extension, to General Raheel or any successor, will create. One thing that this episode did not do is create the impression that the military arm is subordinate to the civilian government. Mian Nawaz Sharif, as Prime Minister, only once before appointed a COAS. It was a searing experience. General Raheel will thus become the first COAS he has appointed to retire at the end of his tenure. This will not silence the crowd of those who have been calling on him to take over, but it will quieten them. Though several holders of the office have retired when due, enough have taken over for a peaceful retirement to be doubted.