Gen. Raheel Sharif was named Pakistan's army chief Nov. 27. (Inter Service Public Relations / via AFP)
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan named a new army chief on Wednesday, promoting a veteran infantry commander to the most powerful position in the troubled nuclear-armed nation battling a homegrown Taliban insurgency.
Gen. Raheel Sharif will take over as head of the 600,000-strong army from Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who is retiring after six years at the helm.
The change of command comes with the country facing a daunting array of challenges — the six-year Taliban campaign which has claimed thousands of lives, vexed relations with India and the winding-down of the 12-year NATO mission in neighboring Afghanistan.
Sharif, a veteran infantry commander whose elder brother won Pakistan’s highest military award for valor in the 1971 war with India, will formally take command on Thursday.
A message from the office of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif confirmed Gen Sharif had been made chief of the army staff and Gen. Rashid Mehmood had been made chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee.
The prime minister’s statement also named Khwaja Asif, the minister for water and power, as the new defense minister. The post had been vacant since the May general election.
Departing commander Kayani has served as army chief since 2007 and has been given much credit for resisting the temptation to meddle overtly in politics.
When he confirmed his retirement last month he stressed that the armed forces “fully support and want to strengthen” democracy.
The general election in May marked a major landmark for Pakistani democracy as being the first time an elected government had completed its term and handed over power through the ballot box.
Prime Minister Sharif will be hoping to avoid a repeat of events the last time he named an army chief — General Pervez Musharraf overthrew him in a coup in 1999.
Retired general Talat Masood, a defense analyst, said Sharif represented “continuity” with the Kayani era and would bring “good knowledge of counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism” to the role.
There has been much debate about how to deal with the campaign of violence waged against the state by the Pakistani Taliban.
The government has said it wants to pursue peace talks, but some have argued that a military offensive is needed to clear militant hideouts in the tribal northwest.
Analyst Hasan Askari said he thought the new commander would take an uncompromising approach.
“He belongs to a family of soldiers, his father was a martyr, his brother was honored with the highest military award, so I expect he will go for the extremist groups and clear the tribal areas,” Askari told AFP.
“He has to secure the border with Afghanistan, so I think he will consult with his senior top brass officers and clear the troubled area along the Durand Line.”
The Durand Line is the official name for the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Sharif, 57, was commissioned into the Frontier Force Regiment in 1976 and has commanded numerous infantry units including two on the sensitive border with India.
Before his elevation to the top job he was Inspector General Training and Evaluation, overseeing the army’s training, in which role he is credited with revamping tactics in recent years.