Some people collect stamps, others play golf; Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif picks army chiefs. It’s a perilous hobby. If things go smoothly, in November Sharif will be required to pick the country’s top general for the sixth time in his career, which has involved previous stints as premier in 1990-93 and 1990-97. Needless to say, things have not always gone smoothly.

Pakistan’s military has long dominated weak civilian governments through direct coups and indirect manipulation of politics. But from the 1970s to the 1990s, Sharif used this to his advantage. Sharif, writes Christophe Jaffrelot, ‘was the most famous client of the security establishment’. 

But in 1998, Sharif prematurely sacked army chief General Jehangir Karamat and upended seniority by promoting General Musharraf. It was a fatal mistake. The next year, Musharraf repaid the favour by launching the disastrous Kargil War against India. When Sharif then tried to sack Musharraf while the general was abroad, the result was a swift coup (the third in Pakistan’s history) and Sharif’s exile to Saudi Arabia. But Sharif is a survivor. He returned to Pakistan just under a decade later, regained the top job in 2013, and it is the disgraced Musharraf who now languishes abroad. 

Nawaz Sharif with the current chief of army staff, Raheel Sharif, in 2015. Photo: Getty Images/Pacific Press

Pakistan’s civil-military relations are fundamentally lopsided. The armed forces, including the army’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) service, have control and veto power over a range of sensitive security issues, including counter-terrorism, relations with Afghanistan and India, and nuclear weapons. Optimists point out that the transition from one civilian government (that of the left-wing PPP) to another (Sharif’s PML) in 2013 was a landmark moment, the first time a civilian government had ever completed its full five-year term. The prospects of a coup receded. But the intervening years have shown that the army continues to flex its muscles under (and sometimes over) the surface.

In 2013, the National Security Council (NSC) was reactivated, giving the army a new point of pressure on the government, and the military asserted its immunity from civilian courts. In 2014, after Sharif tussled with the army over the issue of Musharraf’s trials, talks with the Pakistani Taliban, and relations with India, the army (now led by General Raheel Sharif) encouraged a major bout of protest. Though five out of eleven corps commanders reportedly wanted to depose the prime minister, he was permitted to stay on, with his wings clipped. The army’s power and prestige was heightened by the success of Operation Zarb e-Azb, a major (if selective) counter-terrorism campaign against Islamist militants in North Waziristan, which helped make last year the most peaceful in Pakistan since 2007. And the growing importance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), with its attendant security demands, is already generating further opportunities for military encroachment

While PM Nawaz and General Raheel regularly confer, and some say their relationship is good, the balance of power is clear. In May, for instance, Raheel pointedly asked his prime minister to resolve a political controversy around his involvement in the Panama Papers, warning ominously that this was causing ‘instability and insecurity’. The army continues to enjoy power without responsibility, and Sharif’s domestic weakness has diplomatic consequences. For instance, Indian observers who once had faith in Sharif’s National Security Advisor (NSA), a retired general, now feel that the prime minister is no longer a credible interlocutor on matters of war and peace.

All this explains why November is so important: Raheel’s term ends, and Nawaz must pick a successor. But a remarkable, almost comical, cult of personality has built up around Raheel, undoubtedly encouraged and in many cases funded by the army itself, as Nasir Jamal has explained in an excellent report. The government gave Raheel’s predecessor General Kayani an unprecedented three-year extension in 2010, which is probably best understood as a form of insurance rather than gratitude. Has Raheel not earned the same honour, perhaps even an elevation to field marshal in light of his achievements on the frontier? No less than Senator John McCain has said Raheel should stay on, but in public the general himself has repeatedly demurred; the balance of probabilities lies against an extension. 

That still leaves Sharif with the challenge of picking a successor, while avoiding the mistakes of 1998 and 1999: respecting seniority in the army ranks as he did in 2013 with Raheel while aiming for the most apolitical candidate possible. The Pakistan newspaper Dawn reports that ‘the position of the candidates on political developments in the country, particularly their stance during the 2014 dharna [protests], will … be a deciding factor’, helped by intelligence reports. The message that those who urged a coup need not apply is clear, but may not go down so well. 

Also noteworthy is that the senior-most eligible general is Zubair Hayat, whom I wrote about for the Interpreter in late 2013 after his appointment as director of Strategic Plans Division (SPD), the unit in charge of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. That appointment was especially important because Hayat succeeded the formidable General Khalid Kidwai, who ran the SPD for thirteen years with twelve a string of extensions. Hayat’s subsequent move back into the mainstream of the army (he was made chief of the general staff in January 2015) was itself unusual, and a further elevation would be even more so. Given Hayat’s background in the SPD, during a period in which Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons became a subject of international debate, we could see an even greater focus on nuclear matters.

In practice, the tenure of the next army chief will be shaped less by personality and more by domestic and foreign events, including forthcoming national elections, an impending constitutional crisis and worsening security in Afghanistan, resurgent ethno-political violence in the city of Karachi, and, perhaps most importantly, escalating tension with India. Sharif has demonstrated his willingness to accommodate to the army in the interests of survival, both in the 1990s and over the past two years, and his priority will be on fashioning a working relationship with Raheel’s successor rather than any dramatic effort at a civilian power-grab. 

It seems only right that we conclude with the reflections of Pakistan’s outstanding satirist, Majorly Profound, who noted the following on Raheel’s appointment: 

The once all-powerful Pakistan army has now retreated to only controlling the foreign policy, the ISI, all aspects of internal and external security, beating up errant journalists, extra judicial killings, policymaking in sensitive provinces like Balochistan, wheeling-dealings with all manner of ‘non-state actors’, and the nuke button. Some would say that Pakistan Army has even been rendered toothless — the power to unilaterally nuke India and getting Pakistan annihilated in subsequent Indian retaliation is hardly a symbol of power or a compensation for the inability to freely conduct coups.