By Portia B. Conrad*
If the retirement of Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif transpires in November 2016, it could have significant strategic implications for Pakistan. Until January 2016, it was expected that Gen Sharif, like his predecessors Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Gen Pervez Musharraf, would receive an extension. However, Gen Sharif has put the speculation regarding his extension to rest and revealed his plan to retire naturally at the culmination of his three-year term. This is an opportune moment to look at the superannuation options for the Gen and possible roles that he might assume.
Gen Sharif became Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff in November 2013 and his appointment broke the established seniority principle. Today, Sharif has become an important power centre in Pakistan’s political conundrum. He calls the shots on all the key strategic initiatives in recent years – which have included Operation Zarb-e-Azb (which commenced in June 2014); National the Action Plan (December 2014); the extension of the Karachi Operations (July 2015); pooling support to block the ban on Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM); and the agreement on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). General Sharif also plays an influential role in revamping Pakistan’s relations with the US, Russia and Iran, and in negotiating with the Afghan Taliban.
Significantly, Gen Sharif has ensured that the civilian leadership headed by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif toes the line of the military establishment. Every resistance from the civilian establishment has been met with a veiled threat of facilitating mid-term elections. However, despite a history of military takeover of political power from the civilian leadership, there has been no mention of a coup under Gen Sharif.
Scenario One: Change of Guard
There have been three sets of reshuffles, transfers and promotions carried out under the supervision of General Raheel Sharif – in December 2013, in April 2015 and in January 2016 – that provide clues to his successorship. Based on these changes, the most likely successor is Chief of General Staff (CGS) Lt Gen Zubair Mahmood Hayat, who is also the former chief of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD). The other contenders include Lt Gen Mazhar Jamil, Director General (DG), SPD; Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem, Commander, Multan-based 2 Corps and formerly the CGS; Lt Gen Maqsood Ahmad, who is currently in the US serving as the Military Adviser in the UN Department of Peace Keeping Operations (DPKO). On 29 November 2016, Ahmad will be the senior-most Lieutenant General in Pakistan. Other candidates include Lt Gen Syed Wajid Hussain, Chairman, Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) and former Commandant of School of Armour, Nowshera – who is third in the seniority list; and Lt Gen Najibullah Khan, Director General, Joint Staff, Joint Staff Headquarters, Chaklala – who is fourth in the seniority list.
Scenario Two: Leadership beyond Pakistan
The transition, if it happens, could be complicated considering Gen Sharif’s hold on Pakistan’s internal political and security related issues. Despite the available options, there is also a possibility that Gen Sharif could recommend a titular head under his watch even as he takes up a supervisory role overseeing politics in Pakistan and involving other Islamic nations. He could take up a competent role in the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) – a 34-nation group formed in 2015, led by Saudi Arabia, including Pakistan, to fight terrorism. A leadership role in the IMA might help project his image as a messiah beyond Pakistan – a regional-cum-religious figure. Gen Sharif presently co-leads a similar coalition of 20-nations called ‘North Thunder’.
Scenario Three: Virtual Retention of Power
In a third scenario, Gen Sharif may create an advisory post within Pakistan which enables him to hold on to power. He could propagate his proven decision making skills to retain a position of influence in the country. For instance, the post of Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) also falls vacant on 29 November 2016.
Theoretically, the CJCSC is the senior-most four-star officer of the Pakistani military. The post is ceremonial, but the incumbent has a say in the deployment and use of nuclear weapons and he is also a principal advisor to the prime minister. The Army would likely be supportive of this arrangement since Gen Sharif’s positive image has benefited in improving the Army’s own image, which had suffered setbacks after Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Abbottabad in 2011.
Despite Pakistani media reports of mysterious banners indicating that Gen Sharif will participate in the upcoming 2018 general elections, there is no authenticity to this speculation. If Gen Sharif keeps to his word and chooses to lead a retired life, there will be little scope for his successor to change the overall contours of Pakistan’s security policy and strategic dimensions on foreign policy in the coming years. The Pakistani military has robust command-and-control and a clear hierarchy; the establishment’s ethos, which pre-date Sharif’s leadership, will persist long after he is gone. Even then, Gen Sharif’s kind of leadership has been unprecedented. His profound ability to balance a proxy war and diplomatic ties make him a distinctive figure in Pakistan even after his superannuation.
*Portia B. Conrad
Former Research Intern, IPCS