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Pakistan's most powerful man?

Will the appointment of a new army chief end the era of military meddling in politics?

Last updated: 05 Dec 2013 07:01
Malik Ayub Sumbal

Malik Ayub Sumbal is an award-winning journalist currently based in Islamabad.
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The former COAS looked relieved as he handed over the command to General Raheel Sharif, writes the author [AFP]

If there is one thing ironic in the appointment of Pakistan's new army chief, it is the timing of his appointment. The appointment of Raheel Sharif, the highly-decorated, four-star general, as the new chief comes at a time when Pakistan is facing a large number of internal and external conflicts.

The former Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Ashfaq Kayani, certainly looked relieved as he handed over the command of a 700,000 men strong, nuclear-armed military, to Sharif. The relief probably stems from the fact that recent turn of events has placed his men against the banned extremist movement, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) once again. On one hand, it seems it was about time to eradicate the extremist elements once and for all; on the other hand,  it was the moment for him to step out of the position.

Kayani's era as chief of the army was marked by three elements: His positive relations with the US even after continued drone attacks within Pakistan's territory, and the notorious Operation Neptune Spear that killed al-Qaeda's chief, Osama bin Laden; his strong stance against the TTP; and his protection of democratic values which is a rare case in Pakistan's turbulent history.

There is another irony to the appointment of Sharif. The new face of Pakistan's army and the three-time Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have very few things in common except for their surnames. On the one hand, there's the general who led the army's training and evaluation programme for a long time and never meddled in political affairs; on the other hand, there is Nawaz, who is notorious for meddling in the army's internal affairs to guarantee appointments of his choice.

This is considered the main reason behind the 1999 coup by General Pervez Musharraf against Nawaz's government that led to the prime minister's exile and a Musharaf-led government that saw the country through a tough US-led "war on terror" in Afghanistan. This was the first coup against Nawaz's government, but not the first coup in Pakistan's troubled history.

A history of coups

The army believes, and has convinced Pakistanis to believe, that democracy is not the right option for Pakistan: Every democratically elected government in the country has been charged with corruption, nepotism and financial scams. This has led to the perception that a coup is a certainty. Nawaz is well aware of that fact and has wisely chosen a person who has no known political ambitions. But he has made a critical mistake, one that he made in his previous term as prime minister as well.

The only thing that favours Sharif is the high level of respect he commands in military and civilian circles.This comes from the general's military background, and his highly decorated family

Nawaz is known for making out-of-turn promotions in the army. He is the only politician in the top echelons of Pakistani politics who had a very cordial relationship with the Pakistani military until the 1999 coup against him. The cordial relations were probably taken for granted by Nawaz as he had a fall out with the army in his second term as prime minister, when he forced then COAS General Jehangir Karamat to resign and promoted an undeserving Musharraf. Musharraf, at the time, was the apple of Nawaz's eyes and therefore, was also made the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. This led to the resignation of then Naval Chief of Pakistan, Admiral Fasih Bukhari, who was the ranking senior officer in line for the position.

It is believed that the 1999 coup was the result of a similar attempt by Nawaz against Musharraf. The relations between the two turned bitter when Musharraf planned the controversial Kargil War with arch-rival India, only to later retreat from it and develop friendly relations with that country. From then on, there is a twisted history of politicising institutions and hatching conspiracies against each other.

The appointment of Sharif by Nawaz came as a surprise to many who thought that he had learnt his lesson. If anything, Nawaz has learnt to appoint a person who has no political aspirations. But does that guarantee no political motives in the future as well? So far, the opposite has been the case.

Sharif was promoted over the favourite, and most senior ranking officer, General Haroon Aslam. Some sense a trace of vengeance in Nawaz's decision as Aslam was believed to be a key officer, as the Director of Military Operations, during the 1999 coup. Whatever the reason may be, Aslam registered his silent protest when he took an early retirement from his post.

Best option

Conspiracy theories aside, Sharif is probably the best option as the army chief for Pakistan. As the pioneer of counterinsurgency training in Pakistan, the veteran general has played a vital role in training the army to tackle new threats by militants. The counterinsurgency programme has brought the army out of its conventional role, focusing less on counter-terrorism training. This strategic mind-set is expected to help during the pull out of US-led NATO forces from Afghanistan in  2014.

The pull-out of most Western forces from Afghanistan, along with the upcoming Afghan elections are probably the events that will define Sharif's relations with the US.

There is no doubt that Sharif is a fan of US-style counterinsurgency training, but the topsy-turvy relations between the US and Pakistan can be quite confusing at times. Kayani, with his support for the "war on terror", maintained somewhat cordial relations with the US, yet his reluctance to act against the TTP in North Waziristan, hinted at a fall out with the US.

The US, for its part, does not share its plans for drone strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan, with the army. Sharif, who is considered to be following in Kayani's steps, might have his own policies that could go either way.

The only thing that favours Sharif is the high level of respect he commands in military and civilian circles.This comes from the general's military background, and his highly decorated family: His uncle and elder brother have been awarded the highest military honour of the country, the Nishan e Haider, because they laid down their lives in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistani wars.

Nawaz, though, seems confident about his decision, but one never knows if the old power struggles will bring back his old self. The results of any conflict between the army and the parliament could be devastating. 

Malik Ayub Sumbal is an award-winning journalist currently based in Islamabad.

Follow him on Twitter: @ayubsumbal

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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