Each of Nawaz Sharif’s past choices for army chief has ended in a crisis for the country. Will he prove fourth time lucky?
Everything had been planned down to the last, small detail — but one. Late on the evening of October 12, 1999, as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif swore in Lieutenant General Khwaja Ziauddin as Pakistan’s new army chief, there was no star to pin on his shoulder, to add to the three already there. Mr. Sharif’s military secretary, Brigadier Javed Malik, took one from his own uniform, so that it could be put on to his new chief’s shoulder.
It proved an ill-omen: late that evening, the man Mr. Sharif had sacked, General Pervez Musharraf, flew back to Pakistan from Sri Lanka, and rode to power in a coup. Lieutenant General Khwaja Ziauddin was arrested and relieved of his new-found rank at gunpoint. Mr. Sharif went to prison, and then exile.
Brigadier Malik never got his star back.
Now, with Mr. Nawaz Sharif appointing General Raheel Sharif — no relative — to lead the Pakistan Army, he’ll be hoping to break with the past.
Mr. Sharif’s past appointments to lead Pakistan’s army have all involved breaking with seniority — and ended in crisis for his governments. General Wahid Kakkar, appointed in 1993 superseding Lieutenants-General Rehm-Dil Bhatti, Mohammad Ashraf, Farrakh Khan and Arif Bangash, eventually forced Mr. Sharif’s resignation from office.
In 1998, Mr. Sharif sacked the soft-spoken General Jehangir Karamat for demanding the creation of a National Security Council to adjudicate on civil-military relations. He brought in General Musharraf — with historic consequences.
The man Mr. Sharif has now picked, Pakistan Army sources say, has made a career by avoiding controversy. Lieutenant General Raheel Sharif, soft-spoken and dignified, comes from a Punjabi family with a long military history: his father was an officer, as were his brothers and at least one brother-in-law. His older brother, Major Shabbir Sharif, was among the country’s most decorated officers, winning both its highest military honours, the Sitara-e-Jurrat and the Nishan-e-Haider, for his role in separate battles in the 1971 war.
In Pakistani accounts of the 1971 war, Major Shabbir Sharif is credited with holding back Indian armour at the Gurmakhera Bridge for several days.
Former Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf was a course-mate of Major Shabbir Sharif — and took the younger brother under his wing when he was commissioned into service in October, 1976.
In 1998, General Musharraf was hand-picked as chief of army staff by Mr. Nawaz Sharif — superseding his seniors, Lieutenant General Ali Kuli Khan and Lieutenant General Khalid Nawaz Khan, just as General Raheel Sharif has now done.
His rise to power gave General Sharif a mentor at the highest level of the Pakistan Army. General Sharif was chosen as personal secretary to the new army chief, but General Musharraf then changed his mind and instead sent him for a prestigious course at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London.
Later, General Sharif served as chief of staff to Lieutenant General Abdul Qadir Baloch, then commander of the Gujranwala-based XXX corps. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Lieutenant General Baloch was transferred to the Quetta-based XII corps, a formation responsible for operations against jihadists who were known to be crossing the border from Afghanistan. He took General Sharif with him as his chief of staff, a Brigadier-rank appointment.
Then, General Musharraf promoted General Sharif to the rank of Major General, assigning him as General Officer-Commanding of the prestigious Lahore-based 11th Infantry Division — a formation with a key role in the event of a land war with India.
The challenges before General Sharif are huge. His predecessor, General Pervez Kayani, sought to heal the fractures between the Pakistan Army and its jihadist clients during General Musharraf’s tenure. Even though terrorist violence has sharply escalated in Pakistan, it is generally unnoticed that both military and jihadist fatalities are in decline, suggesting a diminishing will for combat.
In a 2010 article, former United Nations official Chris Alexander charged General Kayani with “sponsoring a large-scale, covert guerrilla war through Afghan proxies” — a charge western and Afghan leaders have since repeated.
General Kayani also part-reversed a ceasefire General Musharraf had put in place on the Line of Control, and loosened restraints on jihadists operating against India.
Experts say General Sharif, a conservative figure, is unlikely to spearhead a radical shift in Pakistani military thinking. The military expert, Hamid Husain, has written that General Sharif “is a gentleman but almost all agree that for a peacetime army, it would make no difference but he is probably not suited to lead an army engaged in a war.”
“The biggest challenge before General Sharif,” says Rana Banerjee, a Pakistan expert who earlier served in the Research and Analysis Wing, “is to find a way to deal with the existential threats posed by the Taliban. We’ll have to watch closely, though, if he’s able to build a consensus around this in what is evidently a very divided Pakistan army.”