Pakistani PM Sharif has appointed General Qamar Bajwa as the country's new army chief. Bajwa will succeed Raheel Sharif, under whose tenure experts say the military dominated almost all spheres of government.
"President Mamnoon Hussain, on the advice of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, promoted Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa to the rank of full general and appointed him as the chief of the army staff," a prime minister's office spokesman told the Agence France-Presse news agency on Saturday.
In any other country, including Pakistan's neighbors India, Nepal and Bangladesh, the role of army head is merely a constitutional formality. But in Pakistan, the military's chief calls the shots and is viewed as the de facto leader. Constitutionally, Prime Minister Sharif is head of the country's executive, but his civilian government has almost no say in defense and matters of foreign policy. Even domestic security affairs are controlled by the army and its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Under outgoing military head General Raheel Sharif, the power of the army increased dramatically.
Bajwa's appointment, however, comes as a surprise as he has been chosen over the highest-ranking contender, General Zubair Hayat, who was previously responsible for the security of the country's nuclear program.
"General Bajwa has extensive experience of handling affairs in Kashmir and the northern areas of the country," Pakistan's "Dawn" newspaper wrote on Saturday. "He also served with a UN mission in Congo as a brigade commander."
Resetting fraught relations
Prime Minister Sharif was under pressure to extend the tenure of the outgoing army chief, who will stand down on November 28. General Sharif's supporters argued that an ongoing military operation against Islamists in the country's northwestern areas and increasing tension with arch-rival India over Kashmir did not allow a change in the military command.
For many in Pakistan, General Sharif has proven himself to be a competent commander, who not only acted against the Islamist terrorists but was also resolute against the prevalent corruption in the country. So as he is about to stand down, mainstream and social media have been inundated with "Thank you, Raheel Sharif" messages.
But ties between the military and Nawaz Sharif deteriorated during General Raheel Sharif's term.
"General Sharif will be remembered for positing the military as a state within a state more than many of the guys before him," analyst Ayesha Siddiqa told the AFP news agency. "The manner in which he pushed the envelope was unbelievable."
Incoming army chief General Qamar Bajwa is expected to help reset those fraught relations.
General Sharif's 'soft coup'
Rights activists accuse the outgoing military chief of increasing the army's powers by using the pretext of fighting Islamists. The army says it has killed 3,500 terrorists since the launch of the 'Zarb-e-Azb' military campaign in June 2014. The military has also set up its own courts that now run parallel to the South Asian country's civilian judicial system. The military courts have hanged many terrorists over the past year and a half, claiming that as a "huge blow" to the militant outfits.
However, analysts say the militants are still powerful enough to attack civilian and military facilities, thus exposing major flaws in the army's anti-terror strategy.
"The attacks show that the military's much-touted 'Zarb-e Azb' operation and the National Action Plan to eradicate terrorism from Pakistani soil have been failures despite Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif's claims of victory," Arif Jamal, a US-based expert on security and Islamism, told DW. "The terror infrastructure is intact in the country and the militants intensify their attacks on the Pakistani state whenever they want to," he added.
A document released last year by the International Crisis Group (ICG) raised serious questions about Raheel Sharif's counterterrorism policies, which the organization said were used to undermine the civilian administration.
"The militarization of counterterrorism policy puts at risk Pakistan's evolution toward greater civilian rule, which is itself a necessary but not sufficient condition to stabilize the democratic transition," the ICG said.
The ICG paper also advised Prime Minister Sharif to take matters into his own hands and democratize the anti-terrorism strategy "in order to replace an overly militarized response with a revamped, intelligence-guided counterterrorism strategy, led by civilian law enforcement agencies, particularly the police."
Tug-of-war with civilian leadership
On Thursday, November 24, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hosted a farewell ceremony in honor of the outgoing army chief. While acknowledging his services, the premier said he would continue to consult General Sharif in the future.
The diplomatic words, however, cannot mask the serious rifts between the civilian government and the army. Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif have not been on the same page over the role of homegrown Islamist militants and ties with India.
A report published by "Dawn" on October 7 shed light on the tension between the civilian and military leadership about how to deal with Islamist terrorists.
"In a blunt, orchestrated and unprecedented warning, the civilian government has informed the military leadership of a growing international isolation of Pakistan and sought consensus on several key actions by the state," wrote Cyril Almeida, author of the report, citing different sources.
"The message: military-led intelligence agencies are not to interfere if law enforcement acts against militant groups that are banned or until now considered off-limits for civilian action," the journalist added.
The international community, particularly the United States, has repeatedly accused the Pakistani army of backing Islamist militants in Afghanistan and India-administered Kashmir.
Brussels-based Pakistani journalist Khalid Hameed Farooqi told DW that the army under General Raheel Sharif was also very skeptical of the premier due to his repeated attempts to improve ties with India and enhance trade between the two South Asian nuclear-armed rivals.
"Sharif has understood that liberal economic policies and good relations with neighboring countries are the only way forward for Pakistan. But there are institutions and groups in the country which do not agree with this approach," Farooqi said.
Consolidation of democracy
Analysts say the new army chief will continue the same policies as Raheel Sharif. They do not expect a policy change with regard to Afghanistan, India and China.
Regardless, activists say it is a good omen for Pakistan that General Sharif's tenure was not extended and a new military head has been appointed without major complications. It is a sign that democracy is flourishing in Pakistan and that civilian leaders are getting more space to take matters in their own hands.