ISLAMABAD: Chief of the Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif ended on Monday growing speculations about an extension in his tenure through a brief, but sudden statement that paved the way for the government to start considering his successor who will take up the job from him in about 10 months from now.
“I don’t believe in extension and will retire on the due date.”
Gen Sharif’s statement, quoted by a military spokesman in a tweet, shattered the quietness of the slow start to the week.
The 43-word statement issued on behalf of the army chief was meant to quash the debate on whether or not the government should give him an extension and if he would accept it.
Coincidentally, the statement came as a petition was filed in Supreme Court’s Lahore registry seeking an extension for him.
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It was, however, unusual for an army chief to so early confirm that he would be leaving his office on retirement. Gen Sharif, who became the army chief on Nov 29, 2013, is set to retire on Nov 30 this year after completing three years in office.
According to one of the general’s close aides, Gen Sharif never had any intention of getting an extension so he thought of immediately ending all rumors in this regard.
He would be the first army chief to retire on time in two decades. His predecessors Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Gen Pervez Musharraf got extensions, while Gen Jehangir Karamat was sent home prematurely.
Gen Sharif used his brief statement to reassure the country that the army was a strong institution and his departure would not affect the fight against extremism and terrorism.
“Efforts to root out terrorism will continue with full vigour and resolve. Pakistan’s national interest is supreme and will be safeguarded at all costs,” Gen Sharif was quoted as having said.
Back in 2013 when Gen Kayani announced that he would not take an extension for a second time, Gen Sharif was not among the favourites in the race for army chief. Even after he beat all the odds to become the chief, his detractors continued to doubt him saying he lacked intelligence and operations background.
But he did not allow those shortcomings to become a handicap and proved everyone wrong.
The high point in his tenure was the start of Operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in June 2014, something from which his predecessor shied away fearing blowback. The operation is now in its last stages. He is also credited for action against militancy in Karachi and partially restoring calm in the city.
Gen Sharif has all along been supportive of the government, except for a statement at the corps commanders’ conference last November when he expressed reservations over civilian administration’s governance. The comment presented the spectacle of a row between the civilian and military leadership. He has, nevertheless, maintained strong influence over the government’s foreign and national security policies.
Gen Sharif was also the architect of the reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which was suspended after it became public that Taliban chief Mullah Omar had died more than two years ago, but efforts are again under way to revive the process.
More lately, the general remained involved in a mediation initiative for defusing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir has, however, lately denied that Pakistan was mediating.
There was no word from the government over Gen Sharif’s announcement, but opposition parties welcomed it.
Defence observers believe that Gen Sharif’s decision would boost the morale of his ranks. They also do not agree that he would be a lame duck chief during the remaining part of his tenure.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan said: “The nation’s respect for Gen Raheel Sharif has gone up after his statement refusing to seek an extension. Gen Sharif’s statement will strengthen the institution of the army as nations are built on strong institutions.”
PPP Parliamentarians President Asif Ali Zardari said: “The army is a premier institution of the country, the cause of which will be best served if the tradition of extension in service is not allowed to gain roots.”
Who could be next?
Going by the book, it is the senior most three-star general who would become the next chief. But this rule is seldom observed. Even when Gen Sharif became the army chief he was third on the seniority list.
A panel of three general officers is sent to the prime minister by the defence ministry, but it is his (PM’s) discretion to appoint anyone whom he thinks is most suited for the job.
The next four in line are: Lt Gen Maqsood Ahmed (currently on deputation with the UN), Lt Gen Zubair Mehmood Hayat (Chief of General Staff), Lt Gen Syed Wajid Hussain (HIT Taxila) and Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem (Corps Commander Multan).
The race is wide open but some defence analysts are of the opinion that Gen Hayat and Gen Nadeem are among the front-runners.
This would be the fourth time that PM Nawaz Sharif will get to appoint an army chief and fifth if one were to include his botched attempt to replace Gen Musharraf with Gen Ziauddin Butt in 1999.