In the fifteen years that Pakistan has been an overtly nuclear-armed state, one man has been a near-continuous presence at the heart of the country's weapons program. Now, he's leaving.

Artillery officer Lt General Khalid Kidwai was appointed as the first head of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) in 2000. SPD is a large and powerful secretariat that manages all things nuclear- and missile-related. Kidwai has held the job ever since, even after his formal retirement in 2007 (since which he has been granted twelve extensions of tenure). In that time, he has overseen the world's fastest growing and diversifying nuclear arsenal. He may very well be one of Pakistan's longest serving officials in history.

In June, Michael Krepon wrote this about Kidwai's central role:

 Every nation's nuclear weapon-related programs have elevated a few individuals into positions of extraordinary authority. Some have remained in the shadows, a few have become national embarrassments, and others have gained public renown. The “father” of the US nuclear navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover, had such a high profile and was deemed to be so essential by his supporters on Capitol Hill that his retirement from active duty was postponed until the ripe old age of 81. Pakistan's closest approximation to Admiral Rickover is...Kidwai. 

As Pakistani journalist Wajahat Khan put it two years ago in a profile, 'Kidwai is the Birbal of the Akbar that is Pakistan's great nuclear arsenal', referring to a famously wise advisor who served in the court of Mughal Emperor Akbar. The New York Times' David Sanger profiled Kidwai in 2009, looking at his efforts to reassure the US that Pakistan's nuclear weapons were safe in the face of insider threats and rampant militancy. (These efforts were largely unsuccessful: the Snowden files show that US intelligence considers Pakistan's nuclear program to be a major and 'intractable' target).

This week, after years of rumours that he was about to go, Kidwai finally passed the baton. His successor is Lt General Zubair Mahmood Hayat, previously commander of the Pakistan Army's unremarkable XXXI Corps.

This transfer of power is a crucial test of whether Kidwai's long tenure has overly personalised the SPD or whether he has built an institution capable of adapting to the challenges Pakistan will face as it moves towards emphasising short range tactical nuclear weapons (a controversial shift; even former SPD officials have expressed concern about the severe risks). There is unlikely to be any radical break with these doctrinal trends.

Indian, American and other officials will be watching Hayat closely for any clues about his intentions.

Photo by Flickr user vpickering.