Originally Published 2014-01-22 05:55:36 Published on Jan 22, 2014
For Pakistan and its army, the year 2014 is crucial as the NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan. There are fears in Pakistan of an Afghan civil war. There is also the long pursued Pakistani strategy of supporting the Afghan Taliban which may backfire.
Pakistan: Challenges before the new Army chief
" In Pakistan, General Raheel Sharif took office as the 15th Chief of Army Staff (COAS) on 29 November last year, taking over from Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The appointment, made by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, seems rooted in the rationale that weaker generals make for a stronger civilian government. For this reason, Gen. Sharif's tenure might better define the lines between the civilian government and the military in Pakistan.

Gen. Raheel Sharif was appointed as the COAS despite being third in line after Lt. Gen. Haroon Aslam who was the senior-most candidate. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed Lt. Gen. Aslam's junior and second in line, Gen. Rashad Mahmood, to the post of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) which is, technically, the top military post in the country but is functionally subordinate to the COAS as it has no command over forces. Lt. Gen. Aslam resigned after these appointments.

This was the fourth time that Nawaz Sharif chose an army chief and his bad experiences in the past seem to have had an effect on his decision. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was also chosen over other senior Generals, deposed Nawaz Sharif and replaced him in a coup in 1999. Before this, General Waheed Kakar forced Sharif to resign. Therefore, a strong and powerful army chief did not seem viable. There are concerns that merit might have fallen victim to self-preservation in the choice of, arguably, the most powerful post in the country.

Only two of the five contenders for the post of COAS had commanded army formations against India - Lt. Gen. Tariq Khan and Gen. Kayani's preferred candidate, Gen. Mahmood. Gen. Raheel Sharif has largely been an administrative general. His last appointment was Inspector General Training and Evaluation. Gen. Rashad Mahmood, on the other hand, has had experience in formulating counter-terrorism operations and Lt. Gen. Tariq Khan commanded formations to counter India and insurgency on the border with Afghanistan. There has, seemingly, been a trade-off between the security of the civilian government and the competence of the military. The appointments have also caused discontent in the military ranks. The violation of the principle of seniority is not viewed favourably.

Born in Quetta on 16 June 1956, Gen. Raheel Sharif grew up in a military family. He underwent his formal education at Government College, Lahore and then attended the Pakistan Military Academy. He commanded two infantry brigades, including an independent infantry brigade group and has held the position of General Officer Commanding of the infantry division and Commandant of the Pakistan Military Academy. He served as Corps Commander for two years before taking over as Inspector General Training and Evaluation. He was in charge of the army's training programme and carried out changes to improve counterinsurgency capabilities. He is credited with revising the Army training manual and emphasising domestic militancy. He was earlier awarded the Hilal-e-Imtiaz and was, recently, conferred the Nishan-e-Imtiaz along with Gen. Rashad Mahmood. But, Gen. Sharif has not held any clear first-tier commands nor served in the Military Operations Directorate or the Special Services Group. Neither does he have an intelligence background.

Gen. Sharif comes from a family of war heroes and is known for a distinct lack of interest in politics, which probably made him a more favourable candidate in the eyes of the Prime Minister. He also has vast connections with the political and military elite. His late older brother, Major Shabbir Sharif, is an acclaimed recipient of the Nishan-e-Haider for his role in the 1971 war. The General is seen as a traditional soldier who may not be inclined to radically change the military institution.

The year 2013 saw Pakistan's first elected government complete a full term and undergo a transition through free and fair elections. This transition, the change of guard in the army and a new Chief Justice, are all signs of democratic progress. The former army chief, Gen. Kayani, played a major role in helping the democratic system function effectively. While there is a belief that there is less likelihood of a military coup in Pakistan, this will depend on whether Gen. Sharif follows in his predecessor's footsteps.

Gen. Raheel Sharif has many challenges ahead of him. While he inherits an army that is still Pakistan's most powerful institution, its authority has eroded in recent years, especially after the May 2011 debacle where Osama Bin Laden was killed in an American military operation in Abbottabad, near Islamabad.

The year 2014 is crucial as the NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan. There are fears in Pakistan of an Afghan civil war. There is also the long pursued Pakistani strategy of supporting the Afghan Taliban which may backfire. Pakistan is plagued by the menace of the Pakistan Taliban which has certain ideological and functional links to the Afghan Taliban. The spill over of the latter coming to power in Afghanistan could be disastrous for Pakistan's internal security. Pakistan's policy of cherry picking militants to support will only exacerbate the issue.

Nawaz Sharif's decision may prove to be flawed if the civilian government fails to fill the void left by a less assertive army. Often, the government has transferred blame to the army for its own failures. But now this excuse has lost weight and pressure on the civilian government to perform has increased.

There have been visible rifts between the civilian government and the Pakistan army on the issue of dealing with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants and negotiating with them. The army may support the talks but will not do so on the militants' terms. Resentment against the TTP has also increased because it has issued statements saying that it will primarily target the military. In the opinion of the new COAS, the internal threats to Pakistan are just as serious as the external threats. It is imperative for the civil and military leadership to be on the same page on this pressing issue. Gen. Sharif will have to strike the perfect balance required to work hand in glove with the civilian government while simultaneously safeguarding the significance of the army in the country.

The relationship with India and the skirmishes on the Line of Control are also important to the COAS as the Pakistan army continues to see India as the main external threat. While Nawaz Sharif may take the lead in the peace process with India, the army is unlikely to take a backseat. But the appointment of Gen. Raheel Sharif brings with it some hope that the army could be persuaded to actively support the peace process. A major question for India is whether it should engage with Gen. Sharif or Prime Minister Sharif. The former's assignments in the past have been restricted to military affairs. This could limit his involvement in Pakistan's foreign policy engagements, granting more power to the Prime Minister and the civilian government.

There is speculation that General Kayani's legacy might have changed military culture, reducing the risk of a military coup in the country. But this can only be proven with time and Gen. Sharif will have to play a major role in carrying this legacy forward. The General will have to make crucial decisions on peace with India, continued friendship with China and the ongoing policy of dual play with USA and militant groups. His first few months in office have been quiet and it remains to be seen if the new COAS will be as pliant as the Prime Minister hopes.

(The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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