ISLAMABAD— Pakistan’s prime minister has named a replacement for army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, ending weeks of media speculation and anxiety within the country prompted by an unprecedented delay in the announcement.
The prime minister’s office, in a brief statement, said that General Raheel Sharif has been promoted and appointed as the new Chief of Army Staff, the most powerful post in Pakistan.
The new commander, who is not related to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will take charge of the world’s sixth largest military on Friday when its incumbent chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, retires.
Wednesday’s announcement came as Pakistan faces an increasingly violent insurgency by Islamist militants, commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban. The army has conducted major operations to uproot bases of these extremists, who are mainly entrenched in the northwestern tribal belt near the Afghan border.
The 57-year-old General Sharif is a career infantry officer and is said to have played a key role in reshaping the army’s counterterrorism strategy.
Former general Athar Abbas, who was the army spokesman before retiring early last year, told VOA he does not foresee any major policy shift under the new leadership in terms of dealing with domestic or external threats facing Pakistan.
“Since everybody remains on board, there is a great discussion, debate before adopting or taking such policy decisions, so, therefore most likely the policy continues with minor or insignificant changes here and there [because] major policy decisions have been taken [and] there is unlikelihood of these getting changed,” Abbas stated.
It is a tradition in Pakistan that the name of the new army chief is officially known a couple of months before he assumes the post. However, this time Prime Minister Sharif made the announcement just days before the incumbent army chief retires.
While there is no official explanation for the delay, observers believe the prime minister took time apparently to avoid repetition of the events of 1999, when his hand-picked army chief at the time, General Pervez Musharraf, ousted Sharif’s elected government in a bloodless military coup.
Some analysts are of the view that army chiefs in Pakistan do not do the bidding of the civilian leadership but are driven by their institution first. Former army spokesman Abbas said that any delay in making such sensitive appointments undermines morale of the armed forces.
“I think it would have been better had they announced about two months back so that the new army chief was in a better position to take a stock of the situation, take his commanders in confidence, I mean a very clear sight of the challenges that are likely to be faced," said Abbas. "Yes, there was an anxiety in the army and since it was delayed unnecessarily so therefore it really gave birth to a lot of speculations.”
While NATO forces are reducing their presence in neighboring Afghanistan, there is no letup in the Taliban-led insurgency. Abbas said the continued instability on the Afghan side of the mostly porous border remains a major challenge to Pakistan’s gains in counterterrorism. He says that in addition to dealing with the internal insurgency, the new military chief will also need to better coordinate efforts with international forces in Afghanistan.
“This remains a great challenge because the situation in Afghanistan is likely to have great impact on this side of the border, and the army chief in the past was intensely involved along with the government, with the [Afghan] reconciliation [process], dealing with the ISAF officials and Afghan officials. So, this will become a great challenge for the new military chief,” noted Abbas.
Pakistan's military is accused of maintaining ties with the Afghan Taliban, and Islamabad's role in bringing leaders of the insurgency to the table for peace talks with the Kabul government is considered vital.
Pakistan’s military tensions with rival India over the disputed Kashmir region have also been running high in recent weeks, posing another major challenge for the new army chief to deal with. General Sharif's brother was one of the army’s most decorated soldiers and was killed in the 1971 war with India.
Pakistan has experienced several military coups since its creation in 1947 and the army continues to influence the country’s key foreign policy matters. The army’s alleged links to militant groups active both in Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir have long been a source of domestic and international criticism.