Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan removes his eyeglasses after addressing the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri(reuters_tickers)
By Mehreen Zahra-Malik
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces a key choice in the coming weeks about who should run Pakistan's powerful military, one that will have a major influence on the country's often strained relationships with the United States and nuclear rival India.
With Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif saying he will step down when his tenure ends in November, the top post is up for grabs, and the prime minister decides who gets it.
Overshadowing the process has been speculation in the media and by some government officials that the general, no relation to the premier, may seek to hold on to some or all of his powers even after his term is finished.
The general is immensely popular among ordinary Pakistanis, who see him as a bulwark against crime, corruption and Islamist militant violence.
He has also strengthened the military's grip over aspects of government, including the judiciary and areas of security policy.
Yet the military flatly rejects the possibility of an extension.
"I will request you to avoid speculations, because we have already taken a position very clearly," Lieutenant General Asim Bajwa, the army's main spokesman, told a recent press briefing.
The military declined to comment further and said General Sharif was not available for interview.
In a country prone to military coups, including one in which Nawaz Sharif himself was ousted from power in 1999, suspicions that the general will remain in his post persist, including among some of the prime minister's senior aides.
Reuters has no independent evidence to corroborate this view.
"Army chiefs soon begin to think they are invincibles-in-chief," said a close aide to Nawaz Sharif, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak about military appointments.
What happens at the top of Pakistan's armed forces will be closely watched overseas.
With nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan fighting the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups, Washington is losing patience with what it says is Pakistan's failure to hunt down insurgents who launch attacks on Afghanistan from Pakistani territory. Pakistan denies this.
India has ratcheted up rhetoric against Pakistan, alarmed at an escalation of violence in the disputed region of Kashmir, including an attack on an army base there that killed 18 soldiers. Islamabad denies accusations it was behind the raid.
LIST OF CONTENDERS
According to three close aides to the prime minister and a senior military official, the military high command has sent the prime minister the dossiers of four main contenders.
The premier's favourite, the aides said, was Lieutenant General Javed Iqbal Ramday, commander of XXXI Corps who led a 2009 operation to drive the Pakistani Taliban militant movement from Swat Valley near the Afghan border.
The three other dossiers are for Lieutenant General Zubair Hayat, Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmad, commanding officer in the eastern city of Multan, and Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who heads the army's Training and Evaluation Wing.
Ramday is considered among the front-runners, in part because his family has been associated with Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) party for many years.
He is also seen by some security officials as popular with General Sharif.
"He's perhaps as liked by Raheel Sharif as he is by Nawaz Sharif," said a senior security official based in Islamabad, declining to be named.
Neither the prime minister nor General Sharif have commented publicly on his chances.
Hayat oversees intelligence and operational affairs at the army's General Headquarters, and before that headed the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which is responsible for Pakistan's nuclear programme.
Retired and serving officers who have served with Hayat see him as a compromise between the military and civilian government.
Ahmad has extensive experience with military operations, especially against Pakistan's Taliban insurgency, and was previously the Director General Military Operations.
Several past army chiefs had served as DGMOs before being promoted to the top post.
A serving brigadier who has worked with Bajwa said he was the general "most similar in temperament to General Raheel", adding that: "His chances are also very good."
The army's media wing did not respond to requests to interview the four contenders.
WRESTING BACK POWER
If Nawaz Sharif appoints a new army chief, it could allow him to claw back some of the influence he has ceded since coming to power in 2013, analysts said.
In 2014, the prime minister emerged in charge but weakened after protests demanding his resignation, and that year the army also went against his wishes for a negotiated settlement with Taliban militants by sending troops into North Waziristan.
"Nawaz has lost a lot of ground to the military during Raheel's tenure," Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst said. "He will try and retake certain space by asserting himself. I think he would like a change in leadership."
Sharif has been quiet on the issue of the military's ascendancy in public.
But a statement from his office late last year, issued after the military urged the government to match its efforts in fighting militancy, said "all institutions have to play their role, while remaining within the ambit of the constitution."
Under Raheel Sharif, the army tightened control over the battle against militants, including creating military courts that have sentenced dozens of people to death.
The courts have been criticised by lawyers and families of defendants for denying basic rights, and some are challenging the courts' rulings through the civilian judiciary.
The military has also taken a lead role in policing the southern city of Karachi, a broadly popular operation that has reduced rampant crime but also been denounced as heavy-handed and open to abuses including extra-judicial killings.
"If Raheel Sharif hadn't been chief, these militants and criminals would have destroyed Pakistan," said Bismillah Khan, a bus driver in the southwestern city of Quetta. "I hope whoever replaces him will be just like him."
(Additional reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Kay Johnson)