The impact of extensions

Extensions can have meaningful effects on our lives. In February 2017, I got a pacemaker implanted in my body that gave me a new lease of life. My quality of life has improved and I feel more optimistic about things. I’ve had over two and half trouble free years, for which I’m grateful to Allah Almighty, doctors and modern technology.

Extension in service can be different from an extension in life. It can be a relief for those about to retire but not for those waiting in the wings. I can recount two occasions when an extension in a senior officer’s tenure indirectly impacted on my life. The first time it happened was when I was commanding a battalion on the Line of Control. My unit was being rotated out to a peace location and the new one had already moved in. Since relief and rotation on an active border is always a serious affair, we were following the SOPs diligently to avoid being surprised by the enemy. Some of our non-essential stores had already been sent to our new destination. I remember this included innocuous items like the first field dressings (this can be lifesaving stuff for a wounded soldier). More importantly we had handed over the heavy weapons in situ to the unit relieving us. Suddenly our move was put on hold and we were told to form part of our formation’s reserve. Intelligence had been received that the enemy was upto some mischief and that we should be ready to counterattack in an area where it was weak. We immediately began to reconnoiter our likely objectives and diligently rehearsed our attack procedures. We had been in the defenses for three long years and needed to get back into the offensive spirit. Soon word spread on the grapevine (langar gap) that this was merely ‘tension for extension.’ Our corps commander with a stellar professional career was about to retire and he wanted to keep his boots on, at this ‘sensitive’ time. Mercifully it never came to such a pass and our commanding general rode into the proverbial sunset without any extension. A foolish charge of the light brigade on an inconsequential hilltop would have certainly not brought us any tactical, operational or strategic gains but would have certainly cost some of us our lives. Posthumous gallantry awards would have been small comfort to the families of those killed in battle.

Next time it happened was when I was in the GHQ. The question was not about an extension because the chief being the president of the country was already giving himself new terms in office. It was about him shedding his uniform. As it happened, the chief had given a firm commitment to the nation that he would be doffing his uniform by the end of 2004 but he was now having second thoughts. One morning our DG, a major general, after the morning brief asked us about our views on the subject. We were an assorted assembly of officers with varying degrees of professional experience and lengths of services. This included grade twos (majors), grade ones (lieutenant colonels), deputy directors (colonels) and directors (brigadiers). Most of my colleagues who could sense more accurately, which way the wind was blowing said that the rank and file would be happy if the chief continued wearing the uniform. This would give him more strength to take decisions of national interest. There was need for continuity of command in these difficult times. I thought otherwise and said that this would ethically be incorrect for the chief to renege on his promise. In order to articulate my thoughts in a better fashion, back in my office, I drafted a long memo and sent it across to my superior officer. The thrust of my argument was that it would be bad for the image of the chief and the institution. Later in the evening I was assailed by more sobering thoughts.  I feebly joked with my wife that the chief may not give up his uniform (he would later say that uniform was his second skin) but I would surely lose mine. My hunch proved correct, I was considered for the next rank a few months later and was not approved. I’m sure there were good reasons for my not being promoted but it didn’t help matters with my unsolicited advice.

In hindsight this proved to be a blessing in disguise. An early retirement helped me pursue a second and more fulfilling career in the academia but that’s another story. In the unlikely event of having been elevated to the status of a four star general, I would have most fallen for the temptation to seek an extension to my service tenure.

Personally I feel in compelling circumstances, a chief may be given an extension but it should not be made a routine. Experience tells us that every army chief barring a few have asked for extensions. General Asif Nawaz died in office before completing his term. His successors Generals Abdul Waheed and Jahangir Karamat declined an extension. General Karamat actually resigned a few months early on principles because his remarks had irked the PM.

A better option could be to give the army chief a standard four years in office instead of three and there should be no extensions unless there is a genuine national emergency and not one based on petty personal or politics interests.

PS. Any similarity in the examples that I’ve quote to the present events is purely co-incidental.

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