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Pakistan's powerful army chief plans to step aside later this year

By Tim Craig | The Washington Post | Published: January 25, 2016

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The most powerful and popular man in Pakistan, army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif, announced Monday that he will step down when his term expires in November, boosting the country's historically unstable democracy but creating new uncertainty about the battle against Islamist militants.

Sharif, who pushed the country onto a war-footing against the Pakistani Taliban and is credited for a steep decline in terrorist attacks, made his announcement on Twitter.

"I don't believe in extensions and will retire on due date," Sharif said through his chief spokesman, Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa. "Efforts to route [sic] out terrorism will continue with full vigor and resolve."

Sharif's announcement could have major implications for both Pakistan's future posture toward Islamist extremist groups as well as efforts to play a role in encouraging peace talks between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban insurgency. Sharif is widely considered to be a dominant voice in Pakistan's efforts to nudge the Afghan Taliban into formal talks with Kabul.

Under Pakistan's constitution, army chiefs hold the position for three years but are eligible for extensions.

Sharif's predecessor, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, served as army chief for six years. But Kayani's extension was controversial in a country that has been under military rule for about half of its 68-year history.

"Thank you Raheel Sharif," one of Pakistan's most prominent and progressive columnists, Cyril Almedia, tweeted after Sharif's announced his plans to retire.

Still, Sharif's announcement could usher in a new period of unease over the country's future. Although Pakistan completed its first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another in 2013, many Pakistanis still revere the army for being their true blanket of stability and security.

It's a role that brought Sharif notice. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif passed over more senior military leaders to select Raheel Sharif as army chief in 2013.

At that time, the prime minister — who is not related to the army chief — was advocating for peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban. Raheel Sharif was skeptical such talks could succeed, and eventually pressured the government into supporting a major military operation against the Pakistani Taliban.

After ordering the evacuation of more than 1 million civilians from North Waziristan in Pakistan's tribal belt, Raheel Sharif ordered 250,000 soldiers into the area in June 2014. Backed by Pakistan's air force, the army largely succeeded in driving Islamist militants from safe havens near the Afghan border, according to assessments from Western officials.

The operation intensified further after a retaliatory Taliban attack on an army-run school killed about 150 students and teachers in December 2014. Sharif also played a crucial role in coordinating a separate operation against Islamist militants and criminal gangs in unruly Karachi, Pakistan's largest city.

"General Sharif rightly conceived that the war on terror needed to be fought from the front," said Nazir Mohmand, a retired Pakistan army brigadier.

Over the past year, those operations are credited with a major reduction in violence. Deaths from terrorist attacks dropped by nearly 50 percent, and 2015 was the safest year in Pakistan since 2006, according to data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

With Pakistan's economy also improving as security concerns have eased, Raheel Sharif's popularity soared. He had an 83 percent approval rating in a poll by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency released in October.

In September, someone even erected billboards praising the general in the name of Karachi's Sindh province. "The citizens of Sindh have something to say: Thank you for saving Karachi Raheel Sharif," it read.

But there have been moments of tension and controversy during Raheel Sharif's tenure as army chief.

During his first year as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif called for rapprochement with Pakistan's archenemy, India. Many analysts suspect those views unsettled the Pakistani military, which caused it to fan anti-government protests in Islamabad during late summer in 2014.

Amid widespread speculation a coup was imminent, Raheel Sharif visited the prime minister. According to an account of that meeting published by Reuters, Raheel Sharif told the prime minister there would be no coup so long as the military kept full control over the country's foreign policy.

Since then, both Sharifs have worked to down play any tension between the military and the civilian government.

Last week, for example, the two men were widely photographed together as they traveled to Iran and Saudi Arabia seeking to mediate the fallout from Saudi Arabia's decision to execute a prominent Shiite cleric earlier this month.

Raheel Sharif also appeared to have good relations with the Obama administration as well as U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan. Western officials have said they generally viewed him as a more honest and determined partner than some past Pakistani military rulers, including Kayani.

The timing of Raheel Sharif's announcement will likely surprise some U.S. leaders.

Just last week, the Pakistani Taliban killed 20 students and two teachers when it attacked a college near Peshawar. The U.S., China, Pakistan and Afghanistan are also in the middle of talks about how best to revive the Afghan peace process. Some U.S. officials had become encouraged that the Pakistan army wouldn't stand in the way of planned talks between Islamabad and New Delhi.

But Mehmood Shah, a retired Pakistani general formerly tasked with security in the tribal belt, said Raheel Sharif never intended to seek an extension as army chief.

"He is a true soldier and he doesn't want to be known in history as someone who was after power," Shah said.

Mohmand added that Raheel Sharif is mindful how the public and international image of both Kayani and ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who led the country for nine years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, seemed to deteriorate the longer they held power.

"By deciding himself not to take extension, he is saying that the institutions are bigger than the individuals, and the state is bigger than the institutions," Mohmand said. "Previously, the institutions were subservient to individuals."

As for potentially undercutting ongoing military operations, Shah believes Sharif's pending departure will instead strengthen the army's resolve to finish the job.

Gen. Zubair Mahmood Hayat, the Pakistan army chief of general staff, is most often mentioned as Raheel Sharif's likely successor. Hayat also has a reputation for being a moderate who worries past Pakistani leaders have not done enough to rein in Islamist extremist groups.

"The next army chief will be under tremendous pressure to follow in the footsteps of Gen. Raheel," Shah said. "His successor will have to work hard to match this standard."

The Washington Post's Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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