ISLAMABAD: Before Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s proverbial honeymoon period is over he will be faced with critical decisions like succession in the army command and rotating the ceremonial chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee among other services.
When these decisions are to be made, Prime Minister Sharif, who is in office for a record third non-consecutive tenure, will find himself at the same crossroads he has been at twice (in 1993 and 1998) – in fact thrice if his botched attempt to appoint Gen Ziauddin Butt as army chief in 1999 is also counted.
On both previous occasions he chose men (Gen Waheed Kakar and Gen Pervez Musharraf) who sent him packing months later. Nevertheless, the choices were relatively easier in 1993 and 1998.
He now has to look for a man who can deal with the multi-dimensional threats to national security, turn around the country’s fortunes in the fight against terror and, more significantly, work with the civilian leadership in redressing the civil-military imbalance believed to be at the root of many of the ills the country faces today.
Last but not the least, the new army chief also has to be in sync with Mr Sharif’s vision of normalisation of ties with India.
If his previous words are taken into account, the prime minister does not have a tough choice to make: “I’ll go by the book. I’ll go by the merit. Whosoever is the most senior would occupy the job. The next one, the next in line.”
This would give Mr Sharif a panel of three generals who would then be in service: Lt Gen Haroon Aslam, Lt Gen Rashad Mahmood and Lt Gen Raheel Sharif.
According to the rules, names from this panel would be sent to him by the defence ministry, which at the moment is headed by Mr Sharif himself.
Mr Sharif, who according to insiders will be cautious this time around in picking the next man, has already started screening the candidates. In this task he is being helped by the old duo – ‘heir apparent’ Shahbaz Sharif and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar — that made the choice for Gen Musharraf in 1998.
The two have been meeting the people concerned and one such meeting that was noted by many was their visit to Rawalpindi Corps Commander Lt Gen Khalid Nawaz.
No one is privy to the discussions in the Chaklala Garrison. Is there a move afoot to grant Gen Nawaz an extension before he retires in October and subsequently make him the army chief or was the visit just aimed at consultations about the prospective candidates? No one can say with surety.
Gen Nawaz is a relative of Raja Zafarul Haq and belongs to a village — Nara Matore — located in the suburbs of the federal capital.
When silence is the order of the day in matters as sensitive as the selection of the next army chief, using simple arithmetic sequencing comes in handy.
Mr Sharif’s choice in 1993 was Gen Kakar who was then fourth on the seniority list and in 1998 he picked Gen Pervez Musharraf who was number three on the seniority list.
Can one say that this time around he would go for the man who would be number two (Lt Gen Rashad Mahmood) and technically also on the panel that would be presented to the prime minister.
The speculation that Lt Gen Rashad Mahmood would make it to the office is also supported by some ground realities. Gen Mahmood was earlier this year elevated to the coveted office of Chief of General Staff. Eight of the last 13 army chiefs had served as CGS prior to becoming a four-star general.
Gen Mahmood has served as Lahore Corps Commander which may go in his favour as the Sharifs are in favour of those who have worked in Lahore — an inclination that is reflected in their key bureaucratic appointments. And don’t forget the general too hails from Lahore.
Moreover, Gen Mahmood has remained military secretary to former president Rafiq Tarar.
Gen Mahmood comes from Baloch Regiment, the parent arm of Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and as a major general he had served under him in the ISI as deputy director general.
In Gen Mahmood’s appointment as the CGS, who is in charge of operational and intelligence matters at the General Headquarters, Gen Kayani has already indicated his personal preference, if one were to read it that way.
He also remained aide-de-camp (ADC) to former army chief Gen Aslam Beg, who was held responsible by the Supreme Court in the Asghar Khan case for creating the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad and engineering the 1990 polls. The 1990 elections brought Nawaz Sharif into power at the centre for the first time.
The other person, who is not much discussed among the likely Gen Kayani’s successors, but is seen as a safe choice by the Sharif camp is Lt Gen Raheel Sharif, who is currently Inspector General Training and Evaluation at the General Headquarters.
A careerist like Gen Mahmood, he previously served as Corps Commander in Gujranwala and held the prestigious position of Commandant Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul.
Gen Sharif is the younger brother of Nishan-i-Haider recipient Major Shabbir Sharif.
Curiously, very few are willing to bet on Lt Gen Haroon Aslam, even though he would be the senior most at the time of Gen Kayani’s retirement on November 28, provided the seniority list is not affected by any extensions.
Theoretically, he should be Mr Sharif’s choice if we go by: “The next one, the next in line”.
Gen Aslam is presently posted as Chief of Logistics Staff at the General Headquarters.
The current postings of Gen Sharif and Gen Aslam – slots that are seen in military service as positions where senior generals cool their heels prior to retirement — are why many do not consider them to be serious contenders for the slot.
Gen Aslam has had a brilliant career in military service where he remained Director General Military Operations, commanded Special Services Group (SSG) and then became Corps Commander in Bahawalpur, before being dispatched to the wilderness of logistics.
His role in Operation Rah-i-Rast (Swat), where he bravely took on Taliban insurgents in their stronghold of Peochar was and is widely appreciated.
His colleagues in the military simply say that “there are issues”, but throw no light on why a high-profile general has ended up in a dead-end job.
And if this was not a disadvantage enough, others feel that Mr Sharif may not have the stomach for another commando after his tryst with Gen Musharraf.
Other than Gen Nawaz, whom many are not counting on because his apparent retirement date comes before the succession takes place, the other dark horse in the race is Lt Gen Tariq Khan, Corps Commander of Mangla.
His fellows describe him as a ‘seedha fauji’ (a real soldier) and a hard-task master.
He successfully commanded counter-insurgency operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as Inspector General of Frontier Corps.
Other than stories of his gallantry in confronting militancy, what also goes in his favour is that the Americans speak very highly of him. He is a recipient of US Legion of Merit.
The cornerstone of US policy of the PML-N government, according to a Sharif’s top foreign policy aide, is to reinvigorate the Pak-US military relationship.
Gen Khan’s choice could help the government’s goal of strengthening military ties with the Pentagon.
Besides, the battle-hardened general is seen by defence analysts as the government’s best bet to give fresh impetus to the fight against militancy and dealing with the challenges that could arise after the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan.
Spymaster Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam (director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence) also holds an outside chance.
The other interesting move to watch would be the prime minister’s decision about the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.
The current Chairman Gen Khalid Shameem Wynne retires on October 6. The position is largely ceremonial at present and yet it has remained with the army for the past 16 years, even though in practice it has to be rotated among the three armed services.
The government is thinking about restarting the rotation, which may dent the oversized army clout.