- By Jake Scobey-ThalJake Scobey-Thal is assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy. Previously, he worked as a freelance reporter in Myanmar and as the Asia Associate for Human Rights Watch. His articles have appeared in The Nation, Next City magazine, and Salon among others. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif might be officially calling the shots in Islamabad, but as of Friday, the most powerful man in Pakistan is someone else: Lt. General Raheel Sharif.
Sharif, who despite the shared surname is not related to the current prime minister, assumed control of the Pakistani armed forces with his installation as army chief of staff on Friday. He takes the reins from Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who enters retirement after six years in the position.
The appointment of Sharif was somewhat unexpected. One of four names submitted for consideration by Kayani to the prime minister, Sharif was chosen ahead of Lt. General Haroon Aslam, the second-most senior army official, and Lt. Rashad Mehmood, the candidate thought to be the favorite of Kayani. Sharif has strong credentials, and comes from a distinguished military family, but in a country where the army has ousted the civilian government on three separate occasions, perhaps his most important qualification is that he is considered a safe pick.
Prime Minister Sharif does not have the best track record in choosing his generals. The prime minister was ousted in 1999 when his hand-picked appointee, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, led a military coup. According to Touqir Hussain, a former Pakistani diplomat and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, Sharif’s expected stance toward Islamabad played a critical role in his appointment. "In Pakistan the question uppermost on the prime minister’s mind will be the civil-military relations in which the personality and ambitions of the man you choose becomes a critical factor," he told Foreign Policy.
Pakistan has seen three periods of military rule in its 66-year history, but in recent years, General Kayani was careful to avoid the appearance of interfering in Islamabad. His hands off approach saw the country’s first successful transition between democratically elected governments. While the new army chief is beholden to his own military constituency and is therefore unlikely to dismantle the army’s control over security decisions, Sharif, a reported moderate, is unlikely to waver from his predecessor’s hands-off approach to politics. "The army no longer wants to appear to directly intervene in politics but it still wants to set the course of Pakistan’s policy," Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, told FP. "General Kayani charted that path well and General Sharif will likely continue along that path." For the prime minister, Sharif’s ability to maintain the tenuous détente between the military and civilian leaders was his chief qualification.
Sharif assumes power during a critical time. With the United States set to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan in 2014, the new army chief will be a vital powerbroker in shaping the complexion of post-war Afghanistan. With militants often launching raids from Pakistan’s restive border areas, the Pakistani borderlands have become a key theater in the Afghan war. But American military commanders have been less than successful in recruiting the Pakistani army to their cause. Pakistan has long been hesitant to crackdown on Afghan militants whom they view as potentially valuable allies in promoting Pakistani interests across the border once the United States pulls out. Kayani rebuffed Washington’s repeated demands for an aggressive military force to squeeze Taliban insurgents in the North Waziristan tribal areas and that calculus is unlikely to change under Sharif.
The flipside, of course, is the emergence of a violent Taliban insurgency at home. The blowback from Pakistan’s reliance on militants to fight proxy wars in the region has been significant — thousands of civilians and security forces have died in recent years. Sharif’s familiarity with the army’s counter-insurgency operations was likely a factor in his appointment. "Raheel has been active in developing Pakistan’s [counter-insurgency] strategy both in his present position and as Commadant of the Pakistan Military Academy," Touqir Hussain said. "And he is known to be concerned about Pakistan’s internal security challenges."
While some Pakistani politicians are eager to negotiate with the insurgents, the army has so far resisted sitting down with domestic militant groups. Rather, the generals have walked a fine line between pursuing military action (with a heavy dose of U.S. drone strikes) and nurturing a force that can still be valuable in projecting power in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
How Sharif negotiates this complex set of priorities amid a U.S withdrawal will not only dictate domestic and regional security, but also his country’s relationship with the west. And while his positions with regard to politics, counterinsurgency, and Afghanistan remain unclear, most analysts expect Sharif to stick to the Kayani script. It is why he was chosen.
But then again, this is Pakistan, and when it comes to the army chief, nothing is certain.