25 November 2016

The new chief

As General Raheel Sharif retires, Nawaz Sharif has a challenge and an opportunity.

When Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif hangs up his uniform on November 29, it will be a moment of rupture. In most other countries, an army chief retiring on the due date would be nothing extraordinary. But in Pakistan, army chiefs do not walk away easily.

Even General Sharif’s predecessor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, got an extension as army chief and Kayani’s predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf, did not even need that fig leaf because he was the military dictator. Had General Sharif sought an extension, not many would have been surprised. After all, he has been a very popular general, with #ThankYouRaheelSharif trending often on social media. While social media trends could be blamed on an overactive Inter-Services Public Relations directorate, General Sharif has also been pictured on the publicity material of candidates in local bodies’ elections and occasionally also on the posters put up by banned groups.

The rhetoric used to burnish his public image set the bar high and had General Sharif continued, he may have faced the same public disappointment as Kayani and Musharraf did in their last years as army chief.

With General Sharif’s imminent departure, the spotlight now shifts to the selection of his replacement. There is a shortlist of four, and it is up to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to make the choice. He can be guided by the outgoing chief but in the end it will have to be the prime minister’s own decision. And he is rather experienced at selecting army chiefs: This is the sixth time he will be selecting someone to head Pakistan’s most powerful institution. Nawaz Sharif would be hoping that he makes the right choice, for the fate and future of Pakistan can often be influenced by this single decision. Democracy is still taking root in the country, with the first peaceful democratic transition of power between two parties having taken place only three years ago. The military continues to hold the veto on many issues in Pakistan, and no one would want the civilian authority to be further emasculated.

While individual personalities matter, an army chief is also shaped, if not constrained, by the institution he heads. The corps commanders and senior military staff ensure that he does not operate outside the ambit of the army’s institutional interests. The new chief, whoever he is, will be cognisant of this reality. New Delhi cannot expect any sudden change in Rawalpindi’s policy towards India, or its distinction between “good” and “bad” terrorists. It is for that reason, perhaps, that there is little curiosity in India about the choice of the new Pakistan army chief. New Delhi will play the hand it is dealt by Nawaz Sharif when he selects the new chief. It has no other choice.

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