Soon, finally, a new leader of Pakistan's military

Why is it taking so long for Pakistan to choose a new Chief of Army Staff - and who will it be? An insight into the politics and personalities of the brass in the running, and how the US and other allies will react. 

Kamal Alam
26 November 2013

Pakistan’s skyline is dominated these days by pilotless machines with an eagle’s view of the situation. In contrast Islamabad’s political hot seat is dominated these days by a pilotless Prime Minister with an ostrich’s view of the situation. Nawaz Sharif is nowhere to be seen as bomb after bomb goes off in its major cities.

The Pakistani state has become much like the drone, no one in the driving seat to set out strategy or direction. As the US drones hover over North West Pakistan, they have now entered a new dimension of taking out targets in settled areas of Pakistan as was witnessed through the November 20 strike on Hangu. This is the first instance of an attack outside the Tribal Areas since the air war began against the militants going back to Nek Mohammed in 2004. However whilst the Pakistani Taliban have been quick to nominate one leader after another, most recently after the death of Hakimullah, the Pakistani Prime Minister has not yet named the next Chief of Army Staff.

It is unprecedented in Pakistan's history for the Prime Minister to wait till the last minute to name the next chief. Since coming to power Nawaz Sharif has hung onto the portfolios of Defence & Foreign Minister: it also took him over five months to appoint an Ambassador to the US. He seems to be completely out of his depth in his third term as PM. Why is he taking so long?

Most observers claim his previous two removals from the role of PM as the main reason for hesitation. However it must be noted that his involvement with military politics dates back to General Zia ul Haq who brought him to power in the Punjab. Since then Nawaz has sought to influence the military far beyond his constitutional remit. Often the Pakistani military is seen as the intruder in domestic politics, but the other side of the argument is that Nawaz has gone too far for two decades in trying to interfere on Army boards of promotions. Over the years Nawaz through his father (now deceased), brother and nephew have sought to create special relationships with several mid-ranking and senior officers so that they could be sympathetic towards Nawaz’s cause. However on both previous occasions Nawaz’s tactics backfired spectacularly.

Currently Nawaz favours General Rashed Mahmood or General Raheel Sharif to be the next Army Chief. Rashed Mahmood was the Corps Commander in Lahore and thus has had extensive dealings with the Sharif family for three years and they feel comfortable with him. He is also seen as the one general most like the incumbent Kayani; indeed he is Kayani’s protégé and close confidant. Raheel Sharif, although bearing the same surname is of no relation to the PM. There has been nothing remarkable in his rise to becoming  a three star, but he is from a very notable military family with several war heroes amongst them from the wars against India.

Another officer in the running is General Haroon Aslam, who was a commander of the special forces of Pakistan - the SSG. General Aslam was seen in combat in the Swat Valley personally leading his men against the Taliban insurgents. He has also been known to spend hours with the common soldier, sitting on the floor sharing his food with troops.

The dark horse in the race is General Zaheer ul Islam, the current Director General of the ISI, who has commanded the southern command of volatile Karachi prior to taking over the ISI. General Zaheer has shunned the media ever since he came to prominence in Karachi. His track record includes several command positions dealing with the Afghan theatre, and he was an admirer of former Peshawar Corps Commander, General Masood Aslam. So in addition to having dealt with Karachi and the ISI, he has been exposed to the battles led by General Masood Aslam in South Waziristan and the Khyber valley.

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General Tariq Khan

Finally the man who without doubt keeps the Taliban up at night is the larger than life General Tariq Khan. General Tariq is a scion of a centuries-old landed family bordering the Tribal Areas. Resembling the G I Joe character, Sergeant Slaughter, he is a no nonsense solider who was Director General of the Frontier Corps dealing with the Taliban during their most brutal period between 2008 and 2010. He famously shot at the Taliban in Bajuar with his Glock pistol whilst airborne in a Bell Huey in 2009. After the NATO attack on the Pakistan Army check post at Salala in November 2011, he was one of the most vociferous opponents of US airborne activity on Pakistan’s border and led the charge in the aftermath of the incident and its repercussions. Some Americans found this odd as he had spent a year in Florida in US CENTCOM from 2004 and 2005 coordinating the coalition effort from the Pakistani side.

This leads to the question as to who the Americans would like to deal with most. There is absolutely no question of the importance the Americans attach to the next Army chief given events not just in Afghanistan but regionally and given the close relationship between the GCC and the Pakistan Army. The Saudis have already reached out to the Pakistanis to help them in Bahrain, and are now urging them to help the Saudi cause in Syria. Prince Turki bin Faisal and Prince Bandar bin Sultan have made several visits in the last month to meet Pakistan Army High Command to discuss the Taliban, Afghanistan and the situation in the Levant.

The Americans have become used to the way Kayani has dealt with them. In fact in Pakistan it is common talk now to say that the Americans forced his extension three years earlier. Even if a wild rumour as rumours go in Pakistan, it holds sway in Islamabad circles now that his elevation to a new National Security Council would please the Americans and indeed NATO. His becoming Joint Chief would also please the Americans, as they could look forward to a continuity in policy. This also holds true for General Rashed Mahmood since he is extremely close to Kayani, so the Americans would be happy to see Mahmood as the next Chief and Kayani in a senior role with a revamped NSC. Nawaz Sharif, as has been stated, would like Raheel Sharif or Mahmood to take over. Nawaz Sharif famously whilst playing first class cricket used to bring his own umpires, and might be trying to do so now as he has done before in the 1990s.

However if Pakistan is to get out of this stage of militancy it needs a military leader capable of looking the Taliban in the eye and taking them head on, even chasing them into their sanctuaries in Afghanistan. For that, the man is Tariq Khan. Afghanistan and Pakistan both need military leaders who know the battle ground - for their job is to mop up those who seek to harm the innocents. Sharif would be a wise man if he picks Tariq Khan to sort out the mess along the Durand Line.

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