Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister, has appointed a low-profile general as his new army chief, a powerful post in a country prone to military coups, racked by Islamist terror and vulnerable to fallout from the Afghan civil war next door.
Mr Sharif named the unrelated Gen Raheel Sharif, who was third in line to succeed Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani after a six-year term in which the army eschewed overt involvement in domestic Pakistani politics.
“He’s known as a military man. I’ve never heard him speak [publicly] anywhere,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, an analyst of Pakistani politics and military affairs, of the new appointee. “That’s what Nawaz Sharif will hope for, that he stays exclusively as a military man, that he does not develop interests outside the military.”
Gen Kayani, the outgoing military chief, steadfastly refused to intervene publicly in politics and was in place during the general election earlier this year, when one democratically elected government replaced another for the first time in Pakistan’s 66-year history.
Mr Sharif’s previous stint as prime minister was cut short by a military coup d’état in 1999, when he was overthrown by Gen Pervez Musharraf, whom he had earlier appointed to head the army. Mr Musharraf is currently in Pakistan after an unsuccessful attempt at a political comeback and is fighting a range of serious criminal charges, including murder, dating back to his decade in power.
Among the challenges facing Gen Sharif, who was in charge of military training and evaluation, are the continuing terror campaigns by Sunni Muslim extremists of the Pakistani Taliban against Shia Muslims and other supposed Pakistani apostates.
Another, related problem is the war in Afghanistan, where Afghan Taliban with ethnic, linguistic and ideological links to their Pakistani cousins have been fighting against the Kabul government and its Nato allies. The main supply line by road for Nato equipment and supplies entering and leaving Afghanistan runs through Pakistani territory.
Lastly, the Pakistan army chief is in charge of maintaining the long-running conflict against Indian forces, principally in the disputed territory of Kashmir, even if Prime Minister Sharif is eager to strike another peace deal with India to increase trade and investment between the two countries that were both part of the British Raj.
Although the civilian government is nominally supreme, Pakistan’s armed forces have long had a say in foreign and defence policy and matters deemed to be of importance to national security.
“Stable military-civilian relations are important for overall stability in Pakistan,” said Mr Rizvi. “That is expected – that the key decisions will be made by the civilians in consultation with the military.”
Pakistan faces grave economic difficulties, including an acute shortage of electricity, but since being elected last May Mr Sharif has promised to restore economic growth and seems confident that his government will be able to serve its full term.
“The new civilian government believes it will be power for five years and will then be judged on performance,” said one senior western diplomat this week, holding out the prospect of relatively normal democratic politics. That meant the government’s focus was “less on survival, more on delivery,” the diplomat said.