Originally Published 2013-11-02 07:33:42 Published on Nov 02, 2013
What magnifies Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif's dilemma in picking up a successor to Gen Kayani is his own experience of picking Pervez Musharraf way down the seniority line to lead the army and regretting it forever. He will not like to repeat his past folly.
Pakistan's new army chief: Seniority or politics?
"The impending retirement of General Ashfaq Kayani on November 29 has created widespread speculation about his successor. Lieutenant General Haroon Aslam is the most likely candidate to take over as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) in Pakistan. But there is a big question mark: if Lt. Gen. Aslam is appointed as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC), General Kayani's preferred candidate, Lt. Gen. Rashad Mahmud, then takes over as new Chief of Army Staff.

The top three candidates for the position of CJCSC are Navy Chief Admiral Asif Sandila, Lt. Gen. Haroon Aslam and Air Chief Marshall Tahir Rafique Butt. The last time an air force or naval officer was appointed to the position was in 1997. It is more likely that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will use the position to placate an officer higher in seniority if he chooses to appoint one below him to the position of COAS. Lt. Gen. Haroon Aslam, Lt. Gen. Rashad Mahmud, Lt. Gen. Raheel Sharif, Lt. Gen. Tariq Khan, and Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul Islam, in order of seniority, are in the running to be the next Chief.

There has been some speculation that General Ashfaq Kayani will be asked to stay on as the CJCSC with expanded powers after his retirement from the position of COAS. This would be to ensure continuity in Pakistan's military strategy towards USA, Afghanistan and India, especially in light of the US withdrawal and Indian elections in 2014. This rumour was further fuelled by his appointment as interim head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC). However, Kayani's reiteration about his intention to hand over the baton has quelled the rumours, but only to some extent.

Kayani has had an unprecedented three year extension in 2010 which did not go down well with several senior commanders who had to retire by default. Another extension could lead to further dissent and friction amongst his subordinates at a time when Pakistan requires a unified army to deal with numerous pressing challenges.

Although Prime Minister Sharif has stated that he would follow the principle of seniority in choosing the officers to occupy the top military posts, his final decision was not likely to be as simple. The new COAS will have to work hand in glove with the civilian government which, in turn, sees a more powerful role for itself relative to the army. Many believe that General Kayani has set a precedence of working towards the separation of the army and the civilian leadership. During his tenure, Pakistan saw its first elected civilian government completing its full term and two reasonably fair elections. The Prime Minister may not want to sabotage this achievement by choosing a strong man to lead the army.

Pakistan is faced with numerous security challenges and the new Chief would be required to immediately take charge of the situation. The US-Pakistan relationship is only now beginning to improve after a significant freeze following the May 2011 Abbottabad US Special Force operation to kill Osama bin Laden. Keeping the border with India quiet and reorienting the policy towards Afghanistan in light of the 2014 withdrawal of the US forces are equally significant issues. But one of the most immediate concerns for the new COAS would be the growing militancy in Pakistan and reconciliation with the Baloch nationalists.

There is a growing belief, at least among the commentators, that given the immese challenges, Lt. General Tariq Khan seems the best choice due to his experience in fighting militancy in Bajaur, the modernisation and revival of the Frontier Corps during his tenure as Inspector General Frontier Corps and his illustrious army record. But the best option for the country might not always be the best political option. He is known to be a strong officer and the civilian government might find it difficult to get his unflinching support. Sharif may opt for the seniority route to choose the next army chief. In any case, the two most senior candidates are good soldiers with an excellent record of dealing with internal security.

What magnifies Sharif's dilemma is his own experience of picking a Mohajir General, Pervez Musharraf, way down the seniority line to lead the army and regretting it forever. He will not like to repeat his past folly. But however cautious Sharif might be in picking the new COAS, he will have to be content with the simple fact that he will first, and last, be loyal to Pakistan Army.

(Taruni Kumar is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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