ISLAMABAD: Five months on from a successful transition of power after general elections, Pakistan is poised to make a decision of arguably greater importance — the appointment of a new army chief.
The incumbent, General Ashfaq Kayani, on Sunday confirmed he will step down as scheduled on November 29, scotching rumours he was to keep a hand on the reins in some new role.
Four lieutenant generals are seen as in the hunt to lead the 600,000-strong army, widely considered the most powerful job.
Analysts said the new man is likely to maintain Kayani’s pragmatic approach to relations with the US and his attitude of not opposing civilian efforts to improve ties with India.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose last appointment as army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, deposed him in 1999, will choose the new chief from a shortlist prepared by Kayani, who was appointed in 2007 and given an extension in 2010.
The highest-ranking contender is Lieutenant General Haroon Aslam, the chief of logistics staff. He took part in operations against the Taliban in the northwestern district of Swat in 2009 and served as chief of the paramilitary Rangers in central Punjab province. Behind Aslam in rank is Lieutenant General Rashad Mehmood, chief of general staff at the army’s General Headquarters.
The other main runners are Lieutenant General Raheel Sharif, whose elder brother won the highest military award for valour in the 1971 war with India, and Lieutenant General Tariq Khan, who has taken part in successful counter-insurgency operations and earned a reputation as an excellent field commander.
Much credit was given to Kayani for resisting temptation to meddle in politics and as he confirmed his retirement, he stressed that the armed forces “fully support and want to strengthen” democracy. Security analyst Imtiaz Gul said he expected this to continue. “The army and its chief will have to follow whatever the civilian leadership defines.”
“Kayani’s tenure as army chief marks a huge step forward in Pakistan’s democratic transition because he has set new benchmarks for depoliticising the army’s role.” Kayani is said to enjoy close ties with the US and played a key role in ordering and supervising operations against Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants in the troubled northwest.
Pakistan has a part to play as the US-led Nato force in Afghanistan withdraws combat troops by the end of 2014 and the new army chief’s relations with the Americans will be crucial.
“I don’t think any army chief can be anti-American, as a lot depends on US assistance as well as equipment and technical support it is providing to Pakistan,” defence analyst and retired general Talat Masood said.
Analyst Hasan Askari agreed, noting that the four likely candidates are well established officers — there are no wildcard outsiders.
With the army engaged in fighting homegrown militants in tribal areas along the Afghan border, Masood said he expected Kayani’s replacement to support efforts to cool tensions to the east.
“He would seek to normalise ties with India to focus more on the western border because the army remains stretched and it is difficult for it to be engaged on two fronts at the same time,” Masood said. AFP