Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces a key choice in the coming weeks about who should run Pakistan’s powerful military, one that will have a major influence on the country’s often strained relationships with the United States and nuclear rival India.
The general is immensely popular among ordinary Pakistanis, who see him as a bulwark against crime, corruption and militant violence. He has also strengthened the military’s grip over aspects of government, including the judiciary and areas of security policy. Yet the military flatly rejects the possibility of an extension.
In a country prone to military coups, including one in which Nawaz Sharif himself was ousted from power in 1999, suspicions that the general will remain in his post persist, including among some of the prime minister’s senior aides.
“Army chiefs soon begin to think they are invincibles-in-chief,” said a close aide to Nawaz Sharif, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to speak about military appointments.
What happens at the top of Pakistan’s armed forces will be closely watched overseas. With nearly 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan fighting the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups, Washington is losing patience with what it says is Pakistan’s failure to hunt down insurgents who launch attacks on Afghanistan from Pakistani territory. Pakistan denies this. India has ratcheted up rhetoric against Pakistan, alarmed at an escalation of violence in the disputed region of Kashmir, including an attack on an army base there that killed 18 soldiers. Islamabad denies accusations it was behind the raid.
According to three close aides to the prime minister and a senior military official, the military high command has sent the prime minister the dossiers of four main contenders.
The premier’s favourite, the aides said, was Lieutenant General Javed Iqbal Ramday, commander of XXXI Corps who led a 2009 operation to drive the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan militant movement from Swat Valley near the Afghan border. The three other dossiers are for Lieutenant General Zubair Hayat, Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmad, commanding officer in the eastern city of Multan, and Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who heads the army’s Training and Evaluation Wing.
Ramday is considered among the front-runners, in part because his family has been associated with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) party for many years. He is also seen by some security officials as popular with General Sharif. “He’s perhaps as liked by Raheel Sharif as he is by Nawaz Sharif,” said a senior security official based in Islamabad, declining to be named.
Neither the prime minister nor General Sharif have commented publicly on his chances. Hayat oversees intelligence and operational affairs at the army’s General Headquarters, and before that headed the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which is responsible for Pakistan’s nuclear program. Retired and serving officers who have served with Hayat see him as a compromise between the military and civilian government. Ahmad has extensive experience with military operations, especially against Pakistan’s Taliban insurgency, and was previously the Director General Military Operations.
The army’s media wing did not respond to requests to interview the four contenders.