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Pakistan Looks For The Military Man Who Can Fill Kayani's Shoes

Pakistan's Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is stepping down after six years in the job.
Pakistan's Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is stepping down after six years in the job.
Pakistan has cast the mold it wants for its top military commander, now the government just needs to fill it.

With General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani leaving his post as Army chief, the country's civilian leaders are seeking a successor who can mirror his style as a military man who took the fight to the militants and generally kept out of the political arena.

Islamabad is tight-lipped about who will replace Kayani, who steps down on November 29, but the choice reportedly comes down to four contenders.

Two made names for themselves fighting the Pakistani Taliban; the other two rose through the ranks by successfully navigating the military's entrenched bureaucracy.

Retired General Talat Masood says that the new Army chief must be able to lead combat operations, maintain morale and discipline, and show a commitment to working with the civilian government in power.

Ultimately, it is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who will decide who takes the reins. But the recommendations of top military brass, including the outgoing military chief, will carry significant weight.

Ignoring the military's endorsement comes at a great risk, as evidenced by coups d'etat that followed government decisions to handpick the Army chief in the 1970s and 1990s. Sharif himself was ousted as prime minister in 1999 after his unsuccessful attempt to appoint a protege to replace former General Pervez Musharraf as Army chief.

Political Considerations

According to Masood, a number of pressing political considerations will play a role in the decision.

"How is he disposed toward promoting democracy, on keeping distance [between] the army and civilian [affairs]? And to what extent has he had experience in [fighting] the insurgency will be one of the important criteria in this selection," Masood says. "Of course, the chief also has to have diplomatic negotiate with foreign armies like the U.S. Army and NATO."

The four men who are believed to be in the running to replace Kayani are all lieutenant generals.

Haroon Aslam, a former leader of Pakistan's Special Forces, led commando missions during the government's push to end the Taliban's control of the country's northwestern Swat Valley in 2009.

Tariq Khan has similar credentials, having helped defeat the Taliban in the tribal districts of South Waziristan in 2008 and Bajaur in 2009.

Rashad Mahmood and Raheel Sharif each built promising bureaucratic careers and have served in both command and staff positions, although it has been reported that neither has led troops against the Taliban.

Seniority Could Count

In Masood's view, Aslam's seniority, owing to his 38 years of service, gives him an advantage over the other three.

"Haroon Aslam is the senior-most," he says. "I don't see any reason why he should be passed over, because he has also got a very good record of service."

But Hamid Hussain, a New York-based writer on Pakistani military affairs, says seniority is a loosely applied rule of thumb and won't necessarily determine who becomes the next Army chief.

Hussain predicts that Aslam is more likely to be handed the largely ceremonial post of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff committee. In theory, this would make him the most powerful military officer in Pakistan, but it is not a command post and the holder has no power to appoint senior officers.

Such a scenario would open the door for Mahmood to be named the new Army chief, according to Hussain, who suggests that there are signs Kayani was grooming the lieutenant general to be his successor.

Hussain says Mahmood has developed a good working relationship with the prime minister's brother, Shahbaz Sharif, while serving as the corps commander in Lahore in recent years.

Lahore is the capital of the eastern province of Punjab, where Shahbaz Sharif has been chief minister since 2008.

"He [Mahmood] is more formal in terms of career and his personality," says Hussain. "He is not a vocal or aggressive type of person. He just follows the norms and the routines, so the Sharifs may feel comfortable and not threatened because he may not be assertive and won't be pushing them around too much."

Dark-Horse Candidate

According to Hussain, there is little chance of Lieutenant General Raheel Sharif being appointed, because he is not seen as a strong enough commander.

Tariq Khan, on the other hand, could be considered a dark-horse candidate.

Over the course of his 36-year military career, he has commanded successful missions against militants and is reportedly an outspoken advocate of eliminating terrorists on Pakistani soil.

"The person who is clear in his mind that this [terrorism] is an existential threat is General Tariq Khan," says Hussain. "He is clear in his mind about what to do about it. So, in that capacity, among all the four, he will be the best choice. For the next three-year tenure of the Army chief, proactive military action will most likely be needed. And for that reason he will probably be the right person."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.