The recent appointment of Lt Gen Raheel Sharif to the post of COAS is very important, certainly more important than appears in the Constitution, but must not be taken in isolation. This is perhaps because it was accompanied by no less than three other appointments, two of them, the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staffs Committee and the Defence Minister, directly related to that of the COAS, and the third, that of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, tangentially so.

The new COAS is, like his predecessor, from a military family. However, while Gen Ashfaque Parvez Kiyani is the son of a Junior Commissioned Officer, General Sharif is the son of a major and brother of Major Shabbir Sharif, the 1971 Nishan-e-Haider. While this has been eagerly grasped at while talking about General Sharif, it has not been mentioned as a reason for appointing him. At the same time, General Sharif, is identified as belonging to Kunjah, Gujrat, which means that he does not belong, as General Kiyani did, to one of the traditional recruiting grounds of the Raj, but to an area which has now become one after Partition.

Not only is he the brother of one Nishan-i-Haider winner, but the nephew of another, Major Aziz Bhatti, the sole Nishan-i-Haider of the 1965 War. This establishes him firmly in the military tradition. At the same time, while his relationship would undoubtedly be a great advantage, it would not have got him to the rank of lieutenant-general, which was necessary for him even to have been in the run for COAS. This also ensures that he is thoroughly acculturated to Army life, and is an even greater conformist than the average newly commissioned second lieutenant. General Raheel has had the succession to General Kiyani, who is exceptional in that he had two tenures, as his 2010 extension was for a full term of three years. This has meant that he has retired after a longer tenure in the Army’s top slot than anyone except that other JCO’s son who made Chief, Ayub Khan, the son of a risaldar.

The acceptability of military rule has more to do with the failure of civilian politicians than any love for the military. However, it should not be forgotten that the military is part of society, because military men ultimately come from civilian families; families which participate fully in the life of the nation, including its politics. There is a takeover not because the COAS wants one, but because the officer corps as a whole does. There is none of the sense that the elected politicians have the right to do as they please. This may be a function of the perception that the mandate is wonky, based on dodgy electoral lists and as a result of elections in which outside forces may have manipulated the result. However, that perception cuts both ways. The military is perceived as being a bastion of the establishment, which means that it is as pro or anti-American as it. The previous COAS is seen as having obtained his second tenure on overt US intervention. This may have reflected the failure to find a suitable replacement. This argument would lead to the conclusion that that replacement has been found.

That means that the challenges faced by the present COAS are serious. The presence of the US in Afghanistan is one challenge, and encompasses both the drawdown of forces in 2014, as well as the Bilateral Security Agreement that will keep a large number there at least till 2024. There is also the question of relations with India. The US wants them to improve. The Army has long made opposition to India the basis of its right to rule.

There are also Army-specific challenges the new COAS has to face. The first is what is to become of ex-President and ex-COAS Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf, who is to go on trial for doing what he is supposed not to do: impose Emergency. The holding of the trial would attempt to do something that has not been done normally: put a military man in the dock. That so far has been seen almost as of equal importance to the fact that a military coupmaker is being held to account for his actions.

Then there is the second, that of the missing persons. The Supreme Court had ordered the production of those missing persons it said were in military custody. It had ordered the Defence Minister to be present with these persons at the next appearance. This made Mian Nawaz divest himself of the Defence and Law portfolios, leaving the new Defence Minister, Khawaja Asif, to appear at the next hearing.

There was also the prospect of change at Tuesday’s hearing of the missing persons case, a Khawaja Asif duly turned up, raising the prospect of what would happen after Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry retired in the coming days. The announcement that the next Chief Justice would be Mr Justice Tassaduq Hussain Gilani signaled not just that the change was coming, but also that the government was following the seniority principle.

The seniority principle is much debated. At one level, it means that anyone who reaches a certain level, that of a Supreme Court judge in the judiciary, or a lieutenant-general in the military, should be eligible to head the institution. That one does not reach that place on the seniority principle, is not taken into account. The government did not strictly follow seniority in the case of the COAS, which is supposed to be a slot where, aside from professional qualifications, it is essential (in all democracies, but especially in one with Pakistan’s history) that the COAS get along with the Prime Minister. Among other things, the COAS must successfully obtain the funding needed for the defence of the country, which implies not just a consensus, but a harmony of views, on defence policy, to which foreign policy is inextricably linked. It is because of this that successive army chiefs have demanded the final word on defence and foreign policy.

Such a harmony of views is not to be expected from a Chief Justice. After all, the Chief Justice is not a mighty subordinate, but the head of a different branch of government. Thus, the seniority principle applies there, and the Prime Minister must live with a Chief Justice with different views, or, as happened to Yousaf Raza Gilani, many find he no longer holds office. But he has no need to live with a COAS he does not see eye to eye with.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

Email: maniazi@nation.com.pk