ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's prime minister chose the brother of a dead war hero to be the next army chief Wednesday, promoting an experienced general to arguably the most powerful position in the country.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's move to appoint Gen. Raheel Sharif was undoubtedly watched closely by the United States, which relies on support from the Pakistan army to battle Islamic militants and negotiate an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
It was a sensitive decision for the prime minister since he was toppled in a military coup in 1999 by the last army chief he selected, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
But retired army officers said the new chief, who is not related to the prime minister, largely will continue the policies of his predecessor, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani — including avoiding overt interference in politics.
"I think the army will continue to stay out of politics, and I think the power of the army will continue to get diluted over time," said Talat Masood, a retired army general and defense analyst.
Pakistan has experienced three military coups and has been run by the army for half of its 66-year history. Kayani's stance allowed the country to experience its first successful transition between democratically elected governments earlier this year — although the army has continued to play a powerful role in politics in the background, especially with regard to policy toward the Afghan war and Pakistan's archenemy India.
The new army chief certainly will be faced with those policy challenges, as well as the country's war with its own domestic Taliban insurgency.
The prime minister's office announced the appointment of Gen. Raheel Sharif in a statement sent to reporters. Sharif most recently served as the head of the army's training and evaluation wing, an important position in a country where the force has attempted to retool its skills toward counterinsurgency. Several of his family members have served in the army. His brother, who was killed in the 1971 war with India, was one of the force's most decorated soldiers.
The new army chief also served as head of an infantry division in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, home to the prime minister. That may have been one of the factors that influenced the prime minister's decision to choose him, said Masood, the defense analyst.
"I think there were several factors he had to bear in mind when selecting the chief," said Masood. "One was that he will distance himself from politics and not be a potential threat to him. The most important factor was how professional he was, how acceptable he was in the army."
The prime minister was toppled in a coup by his last army chief, Musharraf, after he tried to fire him in 1999. The premier spent years in exile in Saudi Arabia before returning in 2007. His party won national elections earlier this year, and he took office in June.
Musharraf is currently facing treason charges filed by the government — a major challenge to the army's once untouchable position.
The new army chief faces a vicious insurgency by domestic Taliban militants that has killed thousands of security personnel and civilians in recent years. His predecessor, Kayani, launched scores of operations against the Pakistani Taliban in their sanctuaries in the country's northwest tribal region, but militant attacks have continued.
Kayani refused repeated U.S. demands to launch an offensive in their final sanctuary in the North Waziristan tribal area. The remote region is also used by Afghan Taliban militants and their allies who stage cross-border attacks against American troops in Afghanistan.
Kayani said his troops were stretched too thin fighting domestic militants to launch an operation. But analysts widely believe he was reluctant to cross Afghan militants with whom Pakistan has historical ties and could be valuable allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are allies, but have largely focused their attacks on opposite sides of the border.
The Pakistani government recently tried to jumpstart peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, but the effort was torpedoed earlier this month by a U.S. drone strike that killed the group's leader, Hakimullah Mehsud.
Pakistan also has been a strong proponent of peace talks with the Afghan Taliban and has released around four dozen militant prisoners in an attempt to help negotiations. But the releases don't seem to have done much good so far, and the Afghan government continues to accuse Pakistan of supporting the Afghan Taliban — allegations denied by Islamabad.
The new army chief also will face critical questions on Pakistan's relationship with neighboring India. The two countries have fought three major wars since they achieved independence from the British Empire in 1947. Pakistan's prime minister has expressed a keen interest in improving relations, especially with respect to trade. But there are likely limits to how fast the Pakistan army would like to see relations change.