Gen. Raheel Sharif, 57, who comes from a distinguished Punjabi military family, started work as new chief of Pakistan’s armed forces chief this weekend with three formidable tasks on his plate, spin-offs from fast-moving events involving the United States, Iran and Israel.
He will have to adapt his military policy to next year’s US military evacuation from neighboring Afghanistan leaving a dangerous void.
Pakistan has been inextricably bound up in the 12-year US-led war in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and its ally Taliban, both of which used Pakistan’s lawless tribal territories as rear bases for their war on coalition forces.
The Obama administration is trying at all costs to prevent the Taliban from seizing the government in Kabul after President Hamid Karzai’s retirement. Its strategy, so far without much luck, is to enlist Iran to help in this objective which, however, is diametrically opposed to that of Pakistan Prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Sharif is anxious to be rid of Taliban, whose expanding terrorist operations are threatening his government’s stability, and wants to push them over into Afghanistan. In particular, he would like to clear them out of the northern and western border districts, where Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri has set up his central command.
To achieve this goal, the Pakistani government must reach terms with Taliban leaders for their cooperation.
The new armed forces’ chief’s second mission is to complete the transfer to Saudi Arabia of the nuclear weapons plus ballistic missiles Riyadh purchased and which Pakistan held in reserve under a secret defense pact the two governments signed in 2004.
This transfer may have already started. It makes Islamabad a major contributor to the evolving Middle East nuclear arms race boosted by the six-power nuclear deal which recognizes Iran’s “nuclear rights.” It also means that Pakistan has ranged itself on the side of the Sunni Arab camp against Shiite Iran, by lending a Sunni power a nuclear capability versus a nuclear-armed Shiite Iran recognized by the six world powers.
Gen. Sharif will be fully backed in this task by his prime minister, an old ally of the Saudi royal house.
These critical moves have not been lost on Iran or India.
Friday, Nov. 29, New Delhi announced a team of planners and engineers would soon be leaving for Tehran to accelerate the construction of the southern Iranian port of Chabahar near the Pakistani and Afghan borders, India’s most important naval base in the Arabian Ocean, which will also offer landlocked Afghanistan its first outlet to the sea.
This outlet is important enough to grant India and Iran a strong foothold in the Afghan capital after the American exit, even if Taliban seizes power.
New Delhi sees Chabahar port as a counterweight for the big naval base China is building at Gwadar on the Arabian Ocean to share with Pakistan.
Taking shape therefore is the first tectonic strategic-political-military movement set off in a key world region by the six-power first-step nuclear deal with Iran.
It finds Beijing pulling away from its alliance with Tehran and aligning more firmly with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to counteract rising US-Iranian influence in Kabul.
India is stepping into Chinese shoes in Tehran, cheered on by Washington, and distancing itself from Israel, its foremost supplier of advanced weapons. Indian-Israeli military and intelligence ties have been receding in the last two years.
The change of military chiefs in Islamabad is also relevant to the covert war waged by Saudi intelligence against the Iranian regime in recent weeks. The Saudis are using Pakistani Baluchistan as their base for subversive operations against the central regime in Tehran.
According to Iran and some Western clandestine agencies, Israeli intelligence is assisting this Saudi-Baluchi campaign.
Gen. Sharif will have to decide whether to allow it to go on and how much leeway he is willing to grant Saudi undercover agencies.
The outgoing chief of staff, the charismatic Gen. Pervez Kayani, managed during his six-year term to keep Pakistan’s armed forces for the first time clear of Pakistan’s endemic political wars, the bane of this nation of 180 million.
But he also worked under a cloud as a suspected sympathizer of Pakistani terrorist organizations, which operated against India. The military Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI) has long been suspected of secretly supporting one of Al Qaeda’s foremost operational arms, Lashkar-e-Taiba, which conducted terrorist operations against American and Israeli targets, the most horrendous of which was the coordinated assault on 12 targets in the India city of Mumbai in Nov. 2008, which left 166 dead and hundreds maimed.
Intelligence experts in the West maintain that the Mumbai outrage, one of Al Qaeda’s first serial attacks, could not have gone forward without Gen. Kayani noticing its preparations. Washington chose to take Kayani at his word when he said the ISI was an independent entity and not under his military command, because his cooperation was needed for the counter-terror operation against Al Qaeda concentrations in the Pakistan tribal areas along the Afghan border.
Many eyes are watching to see whether or not the new chief of staff will continue his predecessor’s policy of tacitly approving the clandestine relations between military intelligence and Islamist terrorist movements.