Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s choice of the next Army Chief has surprised most analysts. His selection of Lieutenant General Raheel Sharif as the new Army Chief has been a brilliant move.
Raheel was third in the seniority list of Pakistan Army after General Kayani, but his reputation of being a laidback officer and his current appointment as Inspector General Training and Evaluation at the General Headquarters (GHQ) had made the prospects of his succeeding General Kayani as the Army Chief quite low.
In fact most analysts considered his juniors, Lieutenant General Tariq Khan, a soldier's soldier, an ethnic Pakhtoon and the only non-Punjabi amongst the five senior-most generals, and Zahir-ul-Islam, the Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to be having a greater chance of getting the top slot than Raheel.
The fact that Tariq commanded the No I strike corps at Mangla and Zahir-ul-Islam commanded the prestigious V Corps at Karachi, while Raheel commanded the lacklustre XXX Corps at Gujranwala, clearly indicated the preference of Army’s top brass.
The fact that Nawaz Sharif had earlier indicated that he would go by the principle of seniority had actually put the media spotlight on two senior-most Lieutenant Generals Haroon Aslam and Rashad Mahmood, both Punjabis. Haroon, a commando was the senior of the two, but was not considered to be Kayani’s choice.
His conduct of operations in Swat, especially the vertical envelopment of the Peochar Plateau was considered brilliant, but he hailed from Azad Kashmir Regiment, which is relatively a new regiment and has hardly produced senior officers.
Consequently, he went on to command a lacklustre corps, XXXI at Bahawalpur and was subsequently, assigned the relatively obscure post of Chief of Logistics Staff (CLS).
Kayani’s personal favourite for the top job was Rashad Mahmood, who hailed from his own Baloch Regiment and had also served in the ISI.
He was accordingly appointed the Corps Commander of politically significant IV Corps at Lahore and after the completion of his tenure moved as the Chief of General Staff (CGS) in GHQ, arguably the most important staff assignment.
In fact, eight out of thirteen Army chiefs of Pakistan had moved up from the post of CGS. More significantly, he had also developed a good equation with Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who is prime minister’s brother, during his stint as the Corps Commander in Lahore.
In October 2013, after the retirement of General Khalid Shamim Wayne, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC), when the billet was not filled in, it was widely believed that the post has been kept vacant so that Haroon Aslam could be pushed up as the CJCSC and Rashad could be appointed as the Army Chief.
Although technically even the naval chief Admiral Asif Saeed Sandila and Air Chief Marshall Tahir Rafiq Butt were also in contention for the post of CJCSC.
It was believed that the two appointments will be announced simultaneously, so that prima facie, it would appear that the principle of seniority has been maintained, because in terms of protocol CJCSC ranks higher than the Army Chief.
Nawaz Sharif’s decision to delay the announcement to virtually the last moment avoided unnecessary discontentment within the force, as well as prevented Kayani from influencing the decision.
Eventually on 27 November 13, just two days before Kayani’s retirement, the government announced the appointment of Rashad Mahmood as the CJCSC and Raheel Sharif as the Army Chief, superseding Haroon Aslam.
By this single stroke Nawaz Sharif gave a strong signal that Haroon Aslam had been punished for his involvement in the 1999 coup against Nawaz Sharif.
This would ensure that junior officers in Pakistan Army will think twice before getting involved in any coup in future at the behest of their superiors. After the removal of Haroon, from the race, Nawaz has overtly gone by seniority and appointed Rashad and Raheel to the two posts.
Rashad’s appointment as CJCSC should satisfy Kayani and his loyalists. However, by appointing Raheel as the Army Chief Nawaz has succeeded in getting an Army Chief, who is more likely to listen to him that any of the other contenders.
An extremely handsome officer, General Raheel is not believed to be very ambitious and has not had a spectacular military career.
Consequently, he is not regarded very highly by the officer corps of the Army. He was commissioned in 1976 in Frontier Force Regiment and has never held a position in the Military Operations or ISI.
However, he has a high pedigree; he is a second-generation Army officer and his elder brother Major Shabbir Sharif, Nishan-i-Haider, laid down his life in 1971 and is one of the most decorated soldiers of Pakistan.
It is in fact his legacy that has taken General Raheel so far, also amongst the common public, which is unaware of the military intricacies. He has basked in the reflected glory of his late brother.
This also makes open opposition to his appointment by Kayani or anyone else impossible.
He is also relatively more westernised than many of his peers and liberal. He devised the counter-insurgency doctrine of the Pakistan Army and articulated that the internal threats posed greater danger to Pakistan than India.
With General Raheel at the helm and with the growing fissures between the Army and the Islamists, Nawaz Sharif should feel more secure and could usher in his agenda of good relations with India.
However, in the immediate aftermath of the Army Chief’s appointment there may be some turbulence within the Armed forces. Many of his contemporaries, who are in key positions, may resign or could be moved. Consequently, one should see a new head of ISI.
There is also a likelihood that the naval chief who was senior-most service chief could resign for being over looked for the post of CJCSC.
It will therefore take some time for the new Army chief to consolidate his position and by mid-2014, he should be in a position to give a new direction to the army.
From India’s point of view, his ascent as the Army Chief could be fortuitous as he is not virulently anti-Indian as many of his compatriots.
In selecting General Raheel Sharif as the new Army Chief, Nawaz has tried to attain many objectives.
Going by his past record, Raheel is unlikely to threaten Nawaz or his government, but in Pakistan, the army chiefs often undergo a metamorphosis once they are in saddle.
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Alok Bansal is Senior Fellow at Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi and the Honorary Executive Director of South Asian Institute for Strategic Affairs (SAISA)