Speculation about an extension for the Pakistan army chief, General Raheel Sharif, was brought to an end when a military spokesman announced on Twitter that Sharif will neither seek nor accept another tenure. By all accounts, the general, scheduled to retire on November 29, has chosen to publicly and definitively stanch the uncertainty much in advance. Sharif’s predecessor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was given a three-year extension at the end of his tenure in November 2010. Before Kayani, General Pervez Musharraf had given himself an extension, which meant that he remained the army chief from October 1998 till November 2007. Sharif has been a popular army chief enjoying visible public support in Pakistan for his policies on counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and the political front. It would have been hard for the Nawaz Sharif government to deny him an extension, had he sought it.
Sharif’s decision is welcome for breaking with an undesirable precedent, whereby individuals have often refused to be subordinate to institutions. It could set a healthy precedent in Pakistan wherein army chiefs retire in the routine course, as happens in other democracies. But the fact that the announcement was made by the military spokesperson casts unflattering light on civil-military relations in Pakistan. Evidently, the decision was taken by the general himself and on his own terms — the civilian government was not even nominally involved. This imbalance in civil-military relations has been a feature of Pakistan for 65 years and it has caused grievous damage to the country. If the balance of civil-military relations is not reset in favour of a democratically elected government, it is bound to hurt Pakistan even more in future.
With Sharif’s announcement, there is speculation about who will replace him. Although the names of five senior-most lieutenant generals on November 29 are known, it cannot be said with certainty that one of them will replace Sharif. Seniority has never been an overriding principle in appointments of army chiefs in Pakistan, and more so with Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. He has selected four army chiefs as prime minister — Asif Nawaz Janjua, Abdul Waheed Kakar, Pervez Musharraf and Raheel Sharif — and all of the appointments have involved the supersession of seniors. One thing, however, is certain. Whoever is selected by Nawaz Sharif as the army chief will have the backing of the most powerful institution in Pakistan, the army. That itself will make him the most powerful person in that country.