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Why Imran Khan Must be Wary of Faiz Hameed, Who Could be Next Pakistan Army Chief

If Faiz Hameed stays in the race by the time Bajwa's successor has to be picked, Imran Khan would be smart to drop him and pick a more non-political general, writes Sushant Sareen. (Image: Reuters)

If Faiz Hameed stays in the race by the time Bajwa's successor has to be picked, Imran Khan would be smart to drop him and pick a more non-political general, writes Sushant Sareen. (Image: Reuters)

That Faiz Hameed is in the good books of Imran Khan is hardly a secret. But to imagine that because he is a loyalist, he will be Imran’s man as chief is a mistake.

The equivalent of a Cabinet reshuffle in India is the reshuffle of the military top brass in Pakistan. No surprise then that even a routine reshuffle of the top command and staff positions in the Pakistan Army invites so much attention. More than anything else, this is a statement on who calls the shots in each of these two countries. The appointment of ISI chief Lt General Faiz Hameed as a Corps Commander is, therefore, nothing out of the ordinary.

It is a routine transfer and wasn’t entirely unexpected. The only reason why it is inviting so much attention is that this gives Hameed a shot at becoming the Army Chief next year when the current incumbent General Qamar Bajwa’s term ends. Without having commanded a Corps for at least a year, Hameed wouldn’t have been eligible for the top job in Pakistan. But whether or not he gets the job is far from certain.

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For one, there is speculation that Bajwa might well seek another extension. While that looks a bit difficult right now, it cannot be entirely ruled out. But assuming Bajwa condescends to retire, Hameed will be number four in the seniority list. That doesn’t mean much because in Pakistan the senior-most three-star general becoming the chief is more of an exception than the rule.

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The last senior-most Lt General who became chief was Jehangir Karamat. His successor Pervez Musharraf superseded three Lt Generals to become chief. Musharraf’s successor Ashfaq Kayani, his successor Raheel Sharif and even Bajwa superseded senior three-stars to become chief. Going by that record, Hameed is well placed to become chief, assuming Imran Khan is still the prime minister when the time comes to pick Bajwa’s successor just over a year from now.

The fact that Hameed is in the good books of Imran is hardly a secret. But to imagine that because he is a loyalist, or if you will a Youthia (a pejorative term for the cult of Imran’s followers), he will be Imran’s man as chief is a mistake that many prime ministers in Pakistan have made. The thing is that in Pakistan, prime ministers appoint their own boss—the Army chief.

The moment someone becomes chief, he becomes his own man. That is the nature of the job. Every prime minister thinks he is appointing his man as Army chief. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto superseded seven generals to appoint an obsequious Zia-ul-Haq and then got hanged by him.

Nawaz Sharif appointed five of them and had problems with all of them — Asif Nawaz Janjua who died in the saddle before he could get rid of Nawaz Sharif, Abdul Waheed Kakar who forced Nawaz to resign, Jehangir Karamat who was the only gentleman who quit after differences with Nawaz Sharif, Pervez Musharraf who did a coup and imprisoned Nawaz Sharif, Raheel Sharif who had serious tensions but did not depose Nawaz Sharif, and Qamar Bajwa who engineered the judicial coup to get rid of Nawaz Sharif.

The Pakistan Peoples Party [PPP] gave an extension to Kayani who in his second term almost got rid of the government over a cooked-up Memogate scandal. Therefore, if Imran thinks he will have a smooth ride with Hameed, he has another thought coming.

Imran would, of course, think that since Hameed was instrumental in his ‘selection’ in the 2018 elections, he will ensure his victory in the 2023 general elections. In 2018, Hameed was Deputy DG ISI in charge of internal security but played the same role in the election that brought Imran into power that in 2002 was played by Major General Ehtesham Zamir who ensured the formation of the Pakistan Muslim League {Q} [PMLQ] government by a single vote.

He intimidated candidates to change loyalties or refuse tickets of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League {N} [PMLN], forced some candidates to withdraw from the election [remember when the Department of Agriculture became a euphemism for the ISI?], engineered splits in PMLN and other parties and corralled candidates and electives to PTI, created a new front in South Punjab to cut into PMLN votes and then got all these guys to merge their front in PTI. He was instrumental in the rise of the Barelvi extremist party Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan which was supposed to cut into the votes of PMLN, he is accused to have ensured that the election transmission system RTS crashed which made it easy to rig the election results.

The services rendered by Hameed were not his personal decision but that of the Pakistan Army that placed its bets on getting Imran Khan into the saddle. In 2023, the Army might not want Imran back. The experience of the last three years has boomeranged on the Army which is getting all the flak for inflicting a disastrous and utterly incompetent man like Imran Khan on the country. If the public mood is ugly, it is unlikely the Army will risk backing Imran Khan regardless of how much Hameed likes him.

A lot will depend also on whether Bajwa decides to shaft Hameed. Postings and transfers in the Army are the prerogatives of the chief. If Hameed’s tenure as Corps Commander XI Corps (Peshawar) is cut short, it would remove him from the race.

Of course, it is probably a bit far-fetched to think Bajwa would do any such thing especially since the XI Corps is right now probably the most important Corps as it deals with Afghanistan. Hameed’s stint in the ISI during which he would have developed very close contacts with the Taliban, especially the Haqqanis who are the real rulers of Afghanistan, is probably the reason why he was picked for the Peshawar Corps.

But this will not be a cakewalk because no one knows how things will play out in Afghanistan and inside Pakistan, what with the spike in terror attacks by the TTP. As the XI Corps Commander, Hameed along with his successor in ISI will be pivotal players in the ‘peace negotiations’ with some of the Pakistani Taliban. How he handles this will be critical for not just his future but also for Pakistan’s. There will also be the issue of a possible fallout of the meltdown in Afghanistan that will spill over into Pakistan.

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The professional side of Hameed will of course be important in determining his future. But his personal side, including his peccadilloes, will also have some bearing on whether or not he becomes chief.

His sexual indiscretions—he is believed to have been shot by his wife who discovered his affair with someone—might well be overlooked by Imran who is himself no spring chicken when it comes to affairs. But Hameed doesn’t enjoy a good reputation within his own military fraternity.

Add to this the fact that just a day earlier the bête noire of the Pakistan Army, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, filed a petition in which she has dragged in Hameed, who had been accused by a deposed Islamabad High Court Judge Shaukat Siddiqui of trying to influence him to convict Nawaz Sharif. While no one expects this petition to succeed — it is Pakistan, stupid! Generals don’t suffer adverse verdicts from courts — it nevertheless adds to Hameed’s notoriety.

The thing is that if Hameed stays in the race by the time the successor of Bajwa has to be picked, Imran Khan would be smart to drop him and pick a more non-political general. Hameed has shown himself to be a sort of ambitious and political general who will not hesitate to usurp power if the opportunity presents itself, as it might well if Imran Khan’s popularity continues to plummet or if widespread disturbances break out because the 2023 polls are rigged. In the event, Imran Khan might well end up as a Bhutto and Hameed as a clone of the obsequious but ruthless and cunning Zia-ul-Haq.

The writer is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:October 07, 2021, 13:28 IST