Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani prime minister who was ousted in a coup by Pervez Musharraf after placing the general atop the armed forces in 1999, named General Raheel Sharif to the job on Wednesday, a choice that should appease the military establishment while allowing for the reset of foreign policy he has promised.
Gen. Sharif, who is not related to the premier, is a highly-decorated officer with a lengthy family tradition of military service, an essential ingredient in a country where the army remains the most credible (and beloved) public institution. He was not the preferred choice of outgoing Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, perhaps because, according to experts on Pakistani politics, he’s something of a moderate who is as focused on the internal threat posed by the Taliban and other Islamic extremists as the nation’s more traditional rivalry with India. But by naming Kayani’s favorite, Gen. Rashad Mahmood, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Sharif may have found a happy medium between directly challenging military doctrine and relinquishing all of his foreign policy authority.
General Sharif’s chief tasks will be to cooperate with the United States as it withdraws combat forces from Afghanistan, perhaps providing logistical support and doing what he can to prevent Islamic militants like the Taliban from organizing in Pakistan’s Northwestern tribal region. Longer term, P.M. Sharif wants to see some kind of a thaw in relations with India, and there may be no better man to help sell the prospect to Pakistani conservatives than General Sharif, whose brother Shabbir was killed in the 1971 war with India. Symbolism is almost the whole ballgame here, as even Kayani has hinted that some kind of rapprochement with New Delhi is in order. So long as the prime minister does not humiliate the military or shock it into a state of panic — General Sharif should be able to prevent both — progress is within reach.
The general will also take on the loaded issue of American drone activity, a thorn in Kayani’s side for some years now that took an interesting twist on Wednesday when Sharif’s election rival Imran Khan’s political party released the name of the local CIA station chief, demanding justice before he can leave the country. The United States has signaled plans to reduce use of the tactic, but recent strikes suggest that rollback will be incremental at best, and drones remain among the “safer” options for the Obama administration, determined as it is to avoid costly overseas commitments of ground forces. We know precious little about where General Sharif comes down on this one, but the relatively blank slate was likely part of what made him appealing to the premier. He’ll just have to hope this choice works out better than his last one.