ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Nuclear-armed Pakistan named a new army chief on Wednesday, a role widely seen as the most powerful position in the a country which has seen three periods of military rule.
Lieutenant-General Raheel Sharif will take over as head of the world's sixth-largest army on Friday from General Ashfaq Kayani, who is retiring after six years at the helm.
The announcement comes as tension with arch-rival India over disputed Kashmir is rising and as the United States seeks Pakistan's help in bringing peace to Afghanistan ahead of the withdrawal of most Western forces there next year.
Pakistan’s army has been called the “state within the state” of the Islamic republic, due to its control of the intelligence and security realms and interventionism in the country of 180 million.
The military has ruled the country for more than half its 66-year history since independence from Britain and generals jealously guard what they see as their right to dictate policies.
Sharif is viewed as a moderate who sees the threat by insurgents within the country as being just as important as the tussle for the Kashmir region with India, its arch rival from which it split in 1947.
Previously third in seniority, Sharif has had relatively little operational or intelligence experience as a senior commander on the country's challenging western front, where troops face the Pakistani Taliban. The military is often criticized for not stopping the cross-border movement of other violent outfits, such as the Haqqani network, which target U.S. forces from their havens in Pakistan’s tribal badlands.
Sharif will try to meet Washington’s demand that next year’s Afghan elections are not threatened by insurgents based in Pakistan. He will also be tasked with ensuring that the U.S. and Western coalition forces withdrawing from Afghanistan are able to pass safely through the NATO supply routes that use Pakistan’s roads and ports.
Sharif received his military commission in 1976 and studied military leadership in Germany, Canada and Britain. He commanded several infantry units, including the Sixth Frontier Force Regiment along the disputed Line Of Control in Kashmir.
He also served as the General Officer Commanding of the 11 Infantry Division, a sensitive posting in Pakistan’s "political nerve cente" of Lahore.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is not related to the new army chief, confirmed the appointment on his official Twitter account.
But speaking to Reuters, security analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi predicted that Sharif would not do the prime minister's bidding.
"He will be driven by the institution first and last," he said.
The new army chief's brother, Major Shabbir Sharif, received one of the country's highest military awards for his action during the 1971 India-Pakistan war in which he was killed.
In 1999, Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power by his army chief, General Pervez Musharraf.
Musharraf now faces trial for treason after he suspended the constitution and declared a state of emergency while he was in power.
Alexander Smith reported from London. Reuters contributed to this report.