Pakistan names new army chief

Pakistan names new army chief
Newly-appointed Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan on Wednesday named a new army chief, a job seen as the most powerful position in the troubled nuclear-armed nation which has seen three periods of military rule.

General Raheel Sharif will take over as head of the 600,000-strong army from General 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 - a homegrown Taliban insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives, vexed relations with India and the winding-down of the 12-year NATO mission in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Sharif, whose elder brother won Pakistan's highest military award for valour 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 General Rashid Mehmood had been made chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee.

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 Nawaz Sharif, who made the appointment, 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.

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 commmander would take an uncompromising approach.

"He belongs to a family of soldiers, his father was a martyr, his brother was honoured 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.

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