Searches for pow­er­ful new Pak army chief

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Paul Han­d­ley

Pak­istan’s pop­u­lar mil­i­tary chief is ex­pected to stand down this week af­ter win­ning the hearts of mil­lions with his bruis­ing cam­paign against Is­lamic mil­i­tants, leav­ing a va­cancy for ar­guably the most pow­er­ful job in the coun­try. Who­ever steps into Gen­eral Ra­heel Sharif’s shoes will play an out­size role in na­tional life, of­fer­ing the armed re­as­sur­ance against archri­val In­dia that many Pak­ista­nis see as vi­tal to their iden­tity. With the civil­ian govern­ment largely dis­missed as cor­rupt and in­ef­fi­cient, the mil­i­tary of­fers a form of sta­bil­ity and stead­fast­ness.

“The army is the only in­sti­tu­tion in Pak­istan that is or­ga­nized,” an­a­lyst Has­san Askari told AFP. “So the army has an ad­van­tage and also plays a role in pol­i­tics, ei­ther openly or pulling strings from be­hind the scenes.” Sharif was the fig­ure­head be­hind a widely-lauded crack­down against mil­i­tancy that is cred­ited with push­ing Is­lamist ex­trem­ists to the mar­gins.

Many in Pak­istan were so grate­ful - the hash­tag #ThankYouRa­heelSharif went vi­ral - that some even called for the gen­eral to launch a mil­i­tary coup. Crit­ics say rights are be­ing rolled back in the name of de­feat­ing ter­ror, point­ing to the cre­ation of mil­i­tary courts and the re­sump­tion of hang­ings af­ter a six-year mora­to­rium. But there is no sign of a course cor­rec­tion from mil­i­tary head­quar­ters in Rawalpindi city, and the an­nounce­ment Mon­day that Sharif had be­gun a farewell tour scotched spec­u­la­tion he would ex­tend his three-year ten­ure, set to end Novem­ber 29, as pre­vi­ous mil­i­tary chiefs have done.

The gen­eral’s de­ci­sion won him praise for re­spect­ing democ­racy, even as dis­ap­pointed Pak­ista­nis swarmed so­cial me­dia to pay trib­ute. His as-yet un­named suc­ces­sor will face chal­lenges rang­ing from an in­creas­ingly hos­tile In­dia to the con­flict in Afghanistan, grow­ing links be­tween home­grown mil­i­tants and Is­lamic State ji­hadists, and blow­back from a Trump pres­i­dency. He will also take con­trol of the mil­i­tary’s un­easy re­la­tion­ship with the civil­ian govern­ment.

The mil­i­tary has been in charge of Pak­istan for more than half of its nearly 70-year his­tory. The coun­try is nom­i­nally ruled at present by Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif. But his ad­min­is­tra­tion is em­broiled in ac­cu­sa­tions of cor­rup­tion and waste, and in­creas­ingly finds it­self play­ing sec­ond fid­dle to a mil­i­tary that is al­ready widely seen as con­trol­ling for­eign pol­icy and de­fence, lead­ing to ac­cu­sa­tions it is car­ry­ing out a “creep­ing coup”. “Gen­eral Sharif will be re­mem­bered for posit­ing the mil­i­tary as a state within a state more than many of the guys be­fore him,” an­a­lyst Aye­sha Sid­diqa told AFP. “The man­ner in which Sharif pushed the en­ve­lope was un­be­liev­able.”

The Con­tenders

The power to choose the new mil­i­tary chief lies with Nawaz Sharif, though he is be­lieved to be work­ing off a short­list sup­plied by the men in uni­form. The high­es­trank­ing con­tender is the army’s Chief of Gen­eral Staff, Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Zubair Hayat, pre­vi­ously re­spon­si­ble for the safety and se­cu­rity of the coun­try’s nu­clear pro­gram. Be­hind Hayat in rank but seen by some an­a­lysts as a favourite, is Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Ish­faq Nadeem, com­man­der of the im­por­tant Mul­tan corps.

The oth­ers in the run­ning are Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Qa­mar Javed Ba­jwa, chief of the army’s train­ing and eval­u­a­tion branch, and Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Javed Iqbal Ramdey, re­spected for an op­er­a­tion to drive out the Pak­istani Tal­iban in north­west­ern Swat Val­ley in 2009. An­a­lysts agree there may be lit­tle change in tack, espe­cially with re­gards to Afghanistan, In­dia and China. “The new gen­er­als com­ing up next are all trained by Ra­heel Sharif,” said an­a­lyst Ahmed Rashid, though he warned there would be more pres­sure on the civil­ian govern­ment to per­form.

Much may de­pend on the re­la­tion­ship with Wash­ing­ton, which has sup­plied bil­lions to the mil­i­tary for the fight against ex­trem­ism since 2002. Sharif helped to im­prove re­la­tions af­ter a furore over the US killing of for­mer Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, found hid­ing in Pak­istan. But choppy wa­ters lie ahead. The in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has said lit­tle about Pak­istan specif­i­cally. How­ever the pres­i­den­t­elect’s anti-Mus­lim cam­paign rhetoric, seem­ing de­sire to cut for­eign spend­ing, and busi­ness in­ter­ests in In­dia are omi­nous signs for Sharif’s suc­ces­sor.

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