General Raheel Sharif by his unequivocal announcement stands tall as a ‘man of dignity and unbending principle’. There is no doubt that he has earned himself unanimous praise and considerably enhanced the image of the Army. His supposed premature announcement came for the same reasons that have prompted writing of this piece. Whereas the speculations about his retirement on the electronic media were pretty innocuous, the discourse on the social media was getting more and more frenzied and offensive. His aim was to quash all the speculations, which were unnecessary, a waste of time and energy, directly implicating his person and causing undesirable confusion in the civil-military relations. After his announcement a flurry of theories for and against his extension has started to clutter the social media space again. Each suggestion being offered has implications that need deliberations.

As the conventional wisdom goes, extensions have seldom been good for an organization, mostly nonproductive and at times counterproductive. No one is indispensible. Charles De Gaulle is supposed to have remarked that ‘the graveyard is full of the indispensible people’.

Iskander Mirza manipulated two extensions for General Ayub Khan. It was during the second extension that Iskander Mirza was himself shown the door. Other than the usurpers who continued to stay as the Army Chiefs, those who had extended tenures were, General Muhammad Musa, eight years, General Tikka Khan, four years and General Kayani, six years. Those whose tenure was cut short were, Gen Gul Hassan forced by Bhutto to resign on gunpoint, General Asif Nawaz Janjua (died of heart failure) and General Jehangir Karamat asked by Nawaz Sharif to resign.

The only General before Raheel Sharif who was offered extension which, he politely refused was General Abdul Waheed Kakar. Later on he was perhaps offered a job also that he refused saying in private that ‘there was no job better than being the Chief of the Pakistan Army’.

Gen Jehangir Karamat however, after his retirement, accepted to be the ambassador of Pakistan to the United States.

When the dust had settled down on Hussain Haqqani’s schizophrenics, Gen Kayani to the surprise of everyone was granted a wholesale extension of three years by the PPP, President Zardari. This extension proved to be fruitless. That is perhaps why both Mr Zardari and his party have so vociferously hailed Gen Rhaeel’s announcement to retire on time.

In a country that has eternally suffered from ‘Qeht-ur-Rejal’ or drought of genuine men, a powerful man willing to part with the glamour and privileges of his post is indeed a pleasant surprise. But it takes that ‘Real Man’ to do it, a man with convictions and self-respect. The lesser men are overwhelmed by the glitter that goes with the centre stage. Gen Abdul Waheed Kakar was another such personality. Gen Mirza Aslam Beg surprisingly went out as an unsung hero. He had in the first place refused to take over the country after Gen Zia’s death when offered to do so by the then Chairman Senate Ghulam Ishaq Khan but he also did not take an extension, which, he could have pulled off rather easily.

But, there are operational requirements, which might be brought to the notice of the Prime Minister. As opined by Late General (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, the change of command during a battle or campaign is not resorted to as a Principle of War. During the 1965 war Yahya Khan replaced Akhtar Malik during an ongoing battle. They say that Ayub Khan was alarmed by General Akhtar Malik’s popularity as a war hero.

Though Yahya Khan was no mean a professional, still the result of this change amidst the battle certainly caused the unwanted delay and loss of momentum that is essential to maintain for successful completion of an operation. Similarly the change of the highest command during Zarb-e-Azb may prove to be counterproductive. In the system any Lieutenant General who has commanded a Corps should be able to serve as the Army Chief. It is the intangibles of war that demand caution in this situation. The morale of the common soldier is soaring; he seems to have developed an explicit trust in his chief and the overall impact that Gen Raheel Sharif seems to have created on his rank and file.

This situation poses a peculiar challenge to the Chief Executive. The easiest option for him is to let the events take their course, select a new Chief of the Army Staff and hope for the best.

Then came the media options mentioned above. One is to once again toy with the idea of a more powerful Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) and place Gen Raheel Sharif to head the organization. A four-star can only coordinate with other four star generals, he cannot command them. Today, the Chief can retire any rank at any time without assigning any reason. That is the source of his absolute authority. Will the new post of the Chairman grant the same power to the new CJCSC?

The second suggestion being forwarded is to extend the term in office of the present Chief by at least one year. That carries multiple ramifications. One, that he has already announced his decision not to take extension in routine. If that difficulty is overcome by an amendment in the Constitution to enhance a Chief’s tenure to four years, it will apply to all Services’ Chiefs. That is not consequential. But the important implication is that presently the Lieutenant Generals have four years’ tenure. If the Chief also has four years tenure, then all the Lieutenant Generals promoted before his becoming the Chief would have to retire in their present rank with no incentive left for enhancement in the career. For the Military it is a closed option. That is why all the generals senior to a chief automatically retire on his promotion. A Lieutenant General is too high a rank to be left to halfhearted operators. If in turn a Lieutenant General’s tenure is also extended say to five years, it is opening a Pandora’s box with no end in sight.

The only practical options left with the Prime Minister if he really feels the necessity, are, one that he tries to prevail upon Raheel Sharif to stay for one more year in the national interest or make such an amendment in the Constitution that enables the Chief Executive to extend the tenure of an Army Chief by one year at a time during emergencies only and make it mandatory for the Army Chief to accept such an extension. To create a safeguard against a whimsical decision of the powers that be, parliamentary participation of the sort could be made essential before the Chief Executive took the crucial step. This may be considered an impingement on the sole prerogative that the Prime Minister enjoys today. But taking a decision without comprehensive in-house discussions, inputs from the three Services and the CJCSC will create more problems than it would solve.