Who will be Bangladesh’s next army chief?

Recent retirements and promotions provide new indications of who the prime minister will choose as the next Chief of Army Staff.

Who will be Bangladesh’s next army chief?
General Aziz Ahmed, Lieutenant General Waker-uz-Zaman and Lieutenant General SM Shafiuddin Ahmed.

With General Aziz Ahmed, the current Chief of Army Staff (CAS) due to retire this month, there is much interest in who will succeed him as one of the most powerful men in Bangladesh’s current ruling order. Netra News spoke to several military and political sources for further insights about possible candidates.

In recent months, some significant retirements and promotions within the senior levels of the Bangladesh Army provide clear hints about who is and who is not in the running.

The army chief is chosen from one of the five lieutenant generals in the Bangladesh Army. Late last year, four of them were sent into retirement: Sheikh Mamun Khaled on October 30th 2020; Mahfuzur Rahman on November 29th 2020; Mohammad Shamsul Haque on December 9th 2020; and, Mohammad Shafiqur Rahman on December 30th 2020. Among these four men, Lieutenant General Shamsul Haque and Lieutenant General Shafiqur Rahman had in particular been considered as strong contenders for the position of CAS.

The retirement age of army officers is 58, and so it is likely that the retirements of these officers are just part of the normal run of events. However, the government could well have given these four generals contracted extensions had it wanted to promote any of them to the position of CAS. They are now out of the running.

A close political associate of Sheikh Hasina told Netra News that the prime minister’s security adviser Major General (retired) Tarique Ahmed Siddique had been seeking to organise extensions for three of these men. According to this insider, who is well-briefed on these developments, last year Siddique had let it be known to each of the three generals that they could be the next army chief. The decision by the prime minister not to let the extensions proceed was a clear rebuke to Siddique and suggests that the next Chief of Army Staff will be chosen from the next generation of officers.

The political associate also told Netra News about a “young [officer]” who would be the “right person” for the job, “He is one of the younger ones. From what I know of him, he is very much a law oriented man, systems oriented man.”

Out of the five men who were lieutenant generals as of October last year, Lieutenant General SM Shafiuddin Ahmed still remains in service, holding the post of Quartermaster General (QMG). He is due to retire on November 30th 2021, and going by the government decision on retiring the other four men it is unlikely that his contract will be extended.

So who are the next generation?

To replace the lieutenant generals who retired last year, new major generals have been promoted to take up their vacant positions: Ataul Hakim Sarwar Hasan, who is now the Chief of General Staff (CGS); Waker-uz-Zaman who is now the Principal Staff Officer (PSO) at the Armed Forces Division; Akbar Hossain who has become the Commandant, National Defence College (NDC); and SM Matiur Rahman who is now the commanding officer at the Army Training and Doctrine Command.

While it is still possible that despite the controversy surrounding the current Chief of Army Staff, Aziz Ahmed (brought about by the Al Jazeera film, “All the Prime Minister’s men”), the prime minister may yet extend his contract for another year, speculation has increased that the new CAS will be chosen from one of these four men.

A high-ranking military officer told Netra News that an extension for General Aziz “is highly unlikely” as “this is not how it is usually done.” Responding to our question about who are the strongest contenders for the post of CAS, the officer put forward two names: Lieutenant General Waker-uz-Zaman (the current PSO) and Lieutenant General SM Shafiuddin Ahmed (the current QMG), “It is is between Waker sir and [Shafiuddin] sir, both are strong and able candidates.”

Waker-uz-Zaman, one of the youngest among the current lieutenant generals in the army, is seen by many in the military as well as in the political circles as the most likely successor to General Aziz Ahmed. As he is the son-in-law of General Mustafizur Rahman, who was the army chief when Hasina was in power in her first term, he is seen as having particular loyalty to the prime minister.

Whoever is named, the new CAS will have to take significant steps to repair the major reputational damage done to the army by General Aziz Ahmed as well as confront the complex issues involving the geostrategic competition between China and the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in South Asia.●