A Very Important Man: Meet Pakistan’s New Army Chief

Gen. Raheel Sharif, Pakistan's new army chief, hails from the same community as the country's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But could the two end up becoming rivals?

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An undated handout picture of Pakistan's newly appointed army chief, Lt. General Raheel Sharif.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has appointed a new army chief to replace Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who will retire tomorrow after spending six years in the role. The move marks a significant transition as Pakistan’s civilian government slowly strengthens its democratic institutions and continues to face fierce domestic security challenges against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan drawing to a close.

The new army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, is reputedly a professional soldier, uninterested in politics. He has commanded a key army corps in Gujranwala, near the Indian border, headed training for the Pakistan army, and is the younger brother of a decorated war hero. But observers have grumbled that Gen. Sharif was elevated over two more senior generals, despite a commitment that seniority in the army’s ranks would be respected.

Gen. Sharif will inherit a mixed legacy. Gen. Kayani was the longest-serving army chief in Pakistan’s history to never have taken over. During his time, Kayani led military offensives in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan against the Pakistani Taliban, but stopped short of taking on remaining militant strongholds in North Waziristan. As army chief, Kayani also oversaw two successive elections, allowing democracy to proceed, but continued to jealously guard the army’s dominance of foreign policy and national security.  For half of Pakistan’s history, the army has ruled directly, and exerted power as the most influential institution for the rest.

In 2009, Kayani was given an unprecedented three-year extension by the previous civilian government. While he remained aloof from politics, Kayani occasionally intervened, particularly where the civilians were seen as encroaching on the army’s national security concerns. At the same time, Kayani, who was Pakistan’s principal interlocutor with Washington, saw his once warm relationship with U.S. officials sink into deep mistrust and even animosity after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Gen. Sharif is said to be uninterested in politics, but such claims were made before about men who went on to promote themselves to the presidency. Still, it seems Prime Minister Sharif is gradually trying to entrench civilian power. Last month, his government announced that former dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf will be put on trial. And now, he has appointed a close aide and confidant Khawaja Muhammad Asif, a fierce critic of military rule who was once imprisoned by Musharraf, as the new defense minister. Asif also counts Gen. Sharif as a friend.

While the balance has tipped slightly in favor of the civilians, the army will continue to maintain a strong influence. Gen. Kayani has evolved a new role for the army chief, where the day-to-day running of government is left to the civilians, and the generals control national security, foreign policy, and elements of the economy. The army’s control of foreign policy has generally meant that it has the final say when it comes to Pakistan’s policies toward India, Afghanistan and the U.S. The last civilian government tried to exert some independence in this area, before ceding its prerogatives to Gen. Kayani. Gen. Sharif will be a much-diminished figure in comparison to Gen. Kayani, who will still cast a shadow on Pakistan’s political scene, even as the civilians try to assert their constitutional independence.

One area where the generals and civilians appear to be slightly at odds is the threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban. The civilians, both in government and opposition, have stressed that they want to halt all military actions and negotiate a peace deal. But at this year’s Independence Day parade, Gen. Kayani signaled a warning. “There can be two different opinions on how to deal with terrorism,” he intoned gravely, “but giving in to it is no answer.” The army sees the new Pakistani Taliban head, Mullah Fazlullah, as an irreconcilable enemy.

Another area where there could be friction between the civilians and the generals is over India. Since coming to power, Prime Minister Sharif has signaled his intention to improve relations across the border and open up trade links. But with fitful tensions across the “line of control” that divides the two sides of Kashmir, the army may disapprove of moves toward rapprochement. At a seminar in Islamabad yesterday, retired General Ehsan-ul-Haq, told an audience that Pakistan has enduring concerns about Indian intentions in Afghanistan.

Over time, it may become unclear which Sharif is the most powerful man in Pakistan, the soldier or the statesman. To achieve the prime minister’s ambition of entrenching civilian power, says Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Nawaz Sharif cannot rely on constitutional moves. “He will need to deliver on social services and the economy to do that,” says Nasr.